40K Calls for Help at VA’s Homeless Call Center Go Unanswered

The number of homeless veterans dropped 7 percent between January 2011 and January 2012, the VA says, an indication that plans to end veteran homelessness by 2015 are on track.

A Veterans Affairs official on Thursday said the agency is making changes to its homeless veterans national call center, a 60-person department that the VA's Office of the Inspector General recently concluded had failed to respond to more than 40,000 calls for assistance.

Lisa Pape, executive director for homeless programs with the Veterans Health Administration told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that she regretted "that any veteran calling for referrals did not get the service they requested."

The IG report said it counted 40,500 "missed opportunities where the call center either did not refer the homeless veterans' calls to medical facilities or it closed referrals without ensuring homeless veterans had received needed services from VA medical facilities."

In about 21,000 cases the veteran ended up getting an answering machine, and more than half of those who left messages could not be contacted because the messages were inaudible, according to the report.

Pape told lawmakers that employees may have been away from their phones for training, leave or documenting earlier work.

Pape was unable to say whether anyone would be fired over the lost calls and incomplete referrals, saying the matter is under review.

"Management is looking at how to address issues in performance and I will be addressing that," she said. "I don't know if all the employees are still there. I don't know if employees were fired."

She said if there is wrongdoing found on the part of the call center manager, action will be taken but she could not say whether that would mean being fired.

Even before the IG released its report, the department had already taken action by rescheduling the hours of employees, to ensure that all phones are staffed during peak times. Currently, she said, 90 percent of calls are being answered.

Veterans who get voice mail, she said, will be told where they are in the queue and given the option of waiting or leaving a message.

Some 20 to 25 percent of veterans will continue to remain on the streets after 2015 regardless of what government housing, health and assistance programs are made available, expert witnesses told Congress on Thursday.

Criticism of the VA's call center comes as the VA enters the final stretch in its five-year plan to end homelessness among veterans.

Since VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced the plan in 2009, VA officials have tracked annually the number of homeless veterans across the country. During a one-night count in January 2010, the VA found 76,329 vets living in emergency shelters, transitional housing or out on the streets.

Currently that number is 49,933, a 33 percent drop from the 2010 figure and about 6,000 fewer veterans than were counted last year.

The VA has developed numerous programs aimed at tackling veteran homelessness, including jobs programs with which it works with the Labor Department and housing programs run by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In recent years, it has also increasingly provided millions of dollars in grants to community-based organizations to assist veterans with housing and employment assistance.

But experts working on the problem in communities told lawmakers Thursday that the problem will not really end, but can be made manageable.

Phil Landis, president and chief executive officer of Veterans Village of San Diego, California, said most veterans "will be able to deal with their demons and move forward" if they get the proper residential treatment, healthcare and assistance.

"But a good 25 percent of this population will require our care for the rest of their lives," he said.

John F. Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On in Massachusetts, said his own experience and observation indicates 20 percent of veterans who find themselves homeless will remain that way over time.

These are veterans, he said, "who cannot learn to manage or who are just comfortable in that lifestyle. We would like to change that, but I don't think we can."

Pape, in her remarks to the lawmakers, said the VA knows that ending veteran homelessness is a continuing effort.

"We recognize that ending homelessness is not an end point but a waypoint," she said. "We can never become complacent about our achievements," she said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@monster.com

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