VA HUD-VASH Supervisor Matt Kerr gives a tour to members of The American Legion National Veterans Education & Employment Commission during a visit to the Sierra Nevada VA Medical System Homeless Facility in Reno, Nev., on Monday, August 21. Photo by David Calvert/The American Legion

Legion conducts a homeless veterans site visit in Reno

American Legion National Veterans Employment and Education Deputy Director Mark Walker, along with National Coalition for Homeless Veterans CEO Kathryn Monet and four Legionnaires, conducted a homeless veterans site visit Aug. 21 in Reno, Nev., to inquire about program services and outreach efforts at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Sierra Nevada Health Care System - Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) facility.

The visit, held in conjunction with the Legion’s 99th National Convention, included a tour of the facility and private meeting with Reno VA employees: HCHV Supervisor Elizabeth Pope; Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Supervisor Matt Kerr; and Justin Chavez, regional director of the facility’s veteran resource center.

“The building that we occupy is just for the services related to the care of homeless veterans,” Pope said. “This whole center is VA funded and all the staff who work here are VA employees. We feel very fortunate – after talking to a few other centers, I know that they don’t have showers or laundry and things like that.”

The facility is now open longer to accommodate walk-ins and staff members will be available anytime between 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to assist with their needs.

“We have roughly 125 contract, grant and per diem beds. We’re a very scattered site regarding HUD-VASH,” said Kerr, an Air Force veteran. “In Reno and Carson City, we hover around 98-99 percent utilized. We’re challenged when we’re in California because of housing costs and really limited stock due to the rural area we cover. But we’re working on it really heavily.”

According to the Reno VA’s website, HUD-VASH is a collaborative program between HUD and VA, that combines HUD housing vouchers with VA supportive services, to help homeless veterans and their families find and sustain permanent housing.

Through public housing authorities, HUD provides rental assistance vouchers for privately owned housing to veterans who are eligible for VA health care services and are experiencing homelessness. VA case managers may connect these veterans with support services such as health care, mental health treatment and substance use counseling to help them in their recovery process, as well as with their ability to maintain housing in the community.

“Any of the homeless staff will basically either ask a few questions about their service to make an initial assessment about whether or not they will be eligible,” Pope said. “The outreach workers do a full assessment of their eligibility and their mental health, physical health or any sort of barriers that may exist with the veteran. They also do a vulnerability assessment to identify how vulnerable the veteran is (such as repeat visits to) the emergency department or major medical issues that aren’t being treated.”

Initially serving as a mechanism to contract with providers for community-based residential treatment for homeless veterans, the VA website noted that many HCHV programs now serve as the hub for a myriad of housing and other services that provide VA with a way to reach and assist homeless veterans by offering them entry to VA care.

“The outreach workers are the hub for a lot of the services VA provides for a veteran who is homeless. They connect them with whatever they need and are eligible for,” Pope said. “Those who are eligible will be referred to HUD-VASH. We also do a HUD-VASH readiness where we help them with their identification and anything they will need for the housing process. Those who aren’t eligible for HUD-VASH, we try to get them into regular apartments. Ninety-five percent of the time, we’re able to help that person right there on the spot and connect them with the resources we can.

" And Post 1 of The American Legion here in Reno has been absolutely amazing for us. We couldn’t do what we do what we do without them."

In addition, HCHV provides funding to local VA Medical Centers, which contract with community-based agencies, to provide short-term residential treatment to veterans who need an immediate housing placement, even as they seek permanent housing and/or additional care and services.

“We run at almost complete occupancy for all of our transitional housing vets. There’s about 125 of them,” Pope said. “We only had four veterans identified on the street, here in Reno, during our Point-in-Time Count. Our hope is that if they don’t want to go into transitional housing, then we’re going to get them as quickly ready for HUD-VASH as possible.”

Kerr said outreach is the core of the HCHV program. According to VA’s website, the central goal is to reduce homelessness among veterans by conducting outreach to those who are the most vulnerable, and not currently receiving services and engaging them in treatment and rehabilitative programs.

“The fair market rents for units that we utilize the Section 8 vouchers and the HUD-VASH program for, we’re having a really difficult time even touching a lot of those places because the rent is so inflated,” Kerr said. “We’re working a lot of different things to try and benefit the veterans in our programs; it’s just that the market has made that very challenging.”

“Nevada on a good day is a lot worse than most states on a bad day as far as public resources available through the state,” Pope said. “That’s where we hit a wall – we don’t have those resources available within our state infrastructure. We try to do our best to do the work we can with our veterans on the VA side so that some of those community resources can be used for non-veterans as well.”

James Fratolillo, a Legionnaire from Massachusetts and chairman of the Legion's Employment and Veterans’ Preference Committee, spoke about how the Legion initiates action on all matters affecting the economic well-being of veterans.

With a vested interest in alleviating veteran homelessness, Fratolillo said his committee, along as well as the Legion's Veterans Employment and Education Commission, will continue their advocacy efforts to ensure resolutions are passed that boost housing stability.

Joyce Jones, a Legionnaire from Mississippi, said, “I have a vested interest in the homelessness situation because I’ve been there and done that. This is an issue deep in my heart.”