VA New England Healthcare System
Helping homeless Veterans prepare for winter
With parts of New England already experiencing the first frost of the season, it’s a sure sign that winter is fast approaching.
Specialists with the VA New England Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program are starting to look ahead to the winter months to best reach homeless Veterans in need amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A good start to the season occurred recently with two regional Veteran Stand Downs with one in Rhode Island and the other in Connecticut.
Stand downs are typically all-day, in-person events during which VA staff and community agencies provide food, clothing, and health care screenings to homeless and at-risk Veterans.
Over the past several years, events in New England have also expanded to provide services and referrals for any Veteran needing assistance.
But this year’s annual Veteran stand downs in southern New England have had to further adapt due to the pandemic, which has made the stand down mission even more important with critical resources for homeless and underserved veterans.
This year's events looked much different due to COVID-19 and were conducted both over virtual online sites and in person to ensure Veterans with the greatest need received much needed items to get ready for the upcoming winter, which can be brutal in this region.
"INTO A WARM PLACE"
It’s never an easy time to be homeless but this time of year is particularly distressing, said officials with VA Connecticut’s Homeless Services program.
“We had a Veteran come up to us and say, ‘I’ve been in my car for the past several weeks, and it’s starting to get cold out – I need your guys help now before it gets too cold,’” said Jason Mastropaolo, Community Resource and Referral Center for the VA Connecticut Homeless Services program.
VA Connecticut, using VA funding from the Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program, was able to get the Vietnam-era Veteran into a stable and warm place to live and he’s now working with a case manager to secure local permanent housing.
“We got him off the street and into a warm place,” said Mastropaolo.
The Connecticut Stand Down, organized and hosted by the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs, was held this year over two days. On the first day, experts across the entire spectrum of local, state, and federal, to include several VA programs, were on hand virtually with presentations and to answer questions on various programs, to include enrolling in VA health care, starting a claim for a service-connected disability, housing solutions, legal assistance, employment, substance use treatment, mental health counseling, social security and more.
More than 30 providers gave presentations online.
Understanding that Veterans still need direct services, both the Rhode Island and Connecticut stand downs made sure to have socially distant resources in place.
In Rhode Island, the 29th annual Stand Down Weekend was held Sept. 18 and 19 with a scaled down version at the War Memorial Park in Johnston. Due to the pandemic and safety protocols, only Veterans were allowed into the park.
Veterans were screened for COVID-19 symptoms and risk factors immediately upon arrival by VA medical staff from the Providence VA Medical Center.
Despite the reduced footprint, more than 160 Veterans attended and received services -- about a fourth less than previous years, said Erik Wallin, executive director of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island. Of the 160 Veterans, 31 met with employment and training specialists, 20 received help with social security benefits, and 22 received housing assistance, he said.
Two homeless and COVID-19 vulnerable Veterans were provided hotel rooms, and the Providence VA team was also able to assign two new veterans to the Providence VA’s Homeless Veterans Support Clinic.
“Thanks to our efforts, they were able to walk away with a time and date to meet with our providers,” said Kevin M. Price, nurse care manager for the Homeless Veterans Support Clinic at the Providence VA Medical Center.
In addition, more Veterans this year sought legal advice and counseling than last year – a sign that the pandemic has increased the need for such vital assistance, said Wallin.
In Connecticut, the state Department of Veterans Affairs hosted distribution and information centers for Veterans to receive clothing, hygiene items and winter supplies on Friday, Sept. 25, at locations in Rocky Hill, Danbury, Bridgeport, and Norwich.
At both the Rhode Island and Connecticut events, volunteers provided veterans with much needed items to help get them through cold weather.
Other services included flu shots, and access to Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration and veterans service organizations.
Representatives from regional Vet Centers were at both the stand downs.
The hybrid approach this year is likely going to be the wave of the future, said officials with both stand downs. With virtual online platforms become more commonplace, there’s an opportunity to connect with more Veterans, especially those who lack mobility or transportation to get to in-person events.
Online presentations also allow family members to learn and listen, and since all the presentations are recorded, they can be viewed later and when most convenient for Veterans and their families with work-life balance priorities.
“I’m looking at this as a way forward,” said Thomas J. Saadi, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Veterans Affairs.
At the same time, traditional direct services that reach those Veterans who are not as tech savvy or do not have access to online systems will continue to be important, he said.
"ALL HANDS ON DECK"
Operation Stand Down Rhode Island is too valuable a resource to not be done in person, said Wallin.
“The event is such a staple in the veteran community and far too important for our struggling veterans that we are committed to making sure veterans are still able to access the most essential services available,” said Wallin, an Air Force Veteran.
With temperatures starting to dip, the VA Healthcare for Homeless Veterans staff know that Veterans are among the high-risk population during the pandemic. Many have compromised immune systems and other chronic health care conditions that can restrict their ability to go in public for things that many people might take for granted such as going to the supermarket and shopping for groceries, said officials.
“The Veterans that did come clearly needed some of the most essential and basic services, which is really the whole purpose of this,” said Wallin.
Immunizations for this vulnerable population are particularly important, said Price.
VA Providence providers dispensed 68 flu vaccines, nine pneumonia vaccines, seven Tdap vaccines, and two vaccines of the second dose of Shingrix for shingles.
As always, the effectiveness of this event can be measured by not only the number of flu shots given, but also the number of Veterans who we are able to help,” said Price.
The forecast for New England is already calling for a snowy winter. Continued uncertainty with the pandemic and with the future financial picture for many Veterans is also a concern.
At VA Connecticut, they have shelves stocked with boots, socks, sweats and incidentals items. With help from the regional vet centers, they were able to get contact cards and information out to hundreds of Veterans.
“It’s hard to predict what the weather is going to be like, but we’re prepared in terms of staff, resources and services, and we’ll be ready to help with transitional housing,” said John Chiechi, a social worker and grant per diem liaison for VA Connecticut’s Homeless Services program. “We’ll be all hands on deck.”