New VA program aiding local homeless vets

KINGMAN - It's hard to say exactly how many homeless veterans there are in Mohave County, suffice to say they number well into the hundreds.

And prior to this year, they had virtually nowhere to turn to get assistance, short of local homeless shelters or the Department of Economic Security.

But things are finally starting to change now that the Department of Veterans Affairs has provided seed money for a new rural outreach program aimed specifically at helping homeless veterans across Northern Arizona, with the program already having helped more than three dozen local vets since it launched in February.

"If you look around the country over the past 20 years or so, most of the larger cities have pretty substantial homeless programs for vets, but none of the rural areas have ever had them," said Jeremiah Jensen, a social worker for Kingman's VA Clinic. "So this is kind of a new thing and it's really kind of a pilot program."

Jensen said the VA has provided about $1.5 million to pay for such programs in Mohave County, Prescott, Cottonwood, Flagstaff, and elsewhere in Northern Arizona. Locally, he said, that translates to a free facility that is capable of providing transitional housing for up to six vets at a time.

"We're using a private provider that we reimburse for beds, and they have six beds," Jensen said. "So if a veteran meets the criteria for our program, we can put them up in housing for up to 90 days, and during that time they receive meals, case management and transportation."

Jensen said the new homeless vet program in Mohave County will be used for two main purposes.

The first will be to help vets who have only recently fallen on hard times by providing them with a place where they can regroup while they work toward gainful employment.

"We have a small percentage who will be staying in our program just until they can find employment," Jensen said. "Our program gives them an address to work from, to get cleaned up, and to look for a job."

The program's second, and arguably larger role, will be to help chronically homeless vets receive the assistance they need to transition into one of the major metropolitan homeless programs, such as the one in Phoenix, where they can receive more long-term assistance.

Jensen noted that many homeless programs have a waiting list before entrants can be helped, and the 90-day housing will give local homeless vets a chance to wait out the period rather than simply dropping off the radar again, as has so often been the case in the past.

"We have a domiciliary in Prescott, for example, that's a four-month facility - but it could take up to a month to get in. It's never immediate, that's the point," Jensen said.

"Before, typically what we would do is apply for them to enter one of our programs in Prescott, but because of the wait, they would 'fall out' of care."

Jensen noted that many chronically homeless vets also have substantial problems with alcohol or substance abuse, which the new rural homeless program is also meant to address via group therapy and community meeting groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. He noted, however, that the rural homeless program falls short of providing a full-fledged treatment center - something Jensen said Kingman really needs.

"We've needed it for years," he said. "Probably about a third of the homeless vets we've helped were drug and alcohol cases, and the whole point was cleaning them up off the chemicals. They also have to submit to random breathalyzers and drug screenings."

One important aspect of the program for chronically homeless vets is its mandate to get as many participants as possible to see a doctor in order to make sure that each vet is receiving proper healthcare, especially given their situation.

"It's one of the things the VA tracks," Jensen said. "We're supposed to get them to see a VA doc if they're under our care, and that's a real big part of the program."

Jensen said the program has also begun receiving some assistance from the recently-formed Mohave Veterans Council, which is composed of many local veterans groups uniting for a common cause. In particular, he said, members of the Marine Corps League have been able to assist the VA program with "same day" expenditures that Jensen himself would not otherwise have been able to take care of due to bureaucratic limitations.

"Today, one of the gentlemen took me and a homeless vet to the MVD and bought him a state ID card so the guy has identification," he said. "That's just not something I'm able to do. The government doesn't just disperse cash like that on an impromptu basis."

Additionally, Jensen said he's hopeful that, within the next several weeks, the VA will put out a solicitation with the aim of securing a contract for its beds, rather than paying a nightly rate like it does now.

If that were to happen, he said, it could potentially increase the number of beds the program provides, allowing it to help even more vets as it continues to evolve.

"If the program takes off, then the VA will take it from there and fund it regularly," Jensen added.

For more information on the VA Clinic's rural outreach program for homeless veterans, call Jensen at (928) 925-9293.