Homeless vet programs transforming lives in San Diego

Story by Rick Rogers, San Diego VA Public Affairs Office
Photo by Christopher Menzie, Public Affairs Specialist, VA San Diego Healthcare System

A San Diego County Veteran Center outreach program is quietly transforming lives of homeless veterans in ways they never dreamt while helping save taxpayers money in the bargain.

About a year ago San Marcos Vet Center director Joe Costello began the “Mobile Outreach for Homeless Veterans” initiative to increase veteran enrollment in the VA healthcare system and connect veterans with housing options.

Costello, an Afghanistan war veteran, leads one of the busiest centers of its kind in the country. He saw a need for outreach in San Diego County and worked to fill it. A key focus is the roughly 1,300 homeless veterans living in and round the city of San Diego.

“We needed to be on the streets,” Costello said of the program he spent three years building, “taking the assets we and our community partners, like the Veterans Village of San Diego and Interfaith Community Services, have and delivering them to the veterans who need them the most. That’s the only way we can really make an accurate needs assessment and to properly serve our homeless veterans.”

At first veterans were reluctant to seek help. But thanks to the Vet Center’s steady presence the barriers melted away now and up to 40 homeless veterans a week are coming forward.

“When I first saw the mobile van, I thought: Is the VA going to do what it’s always done in regards to homeless vets – nothing?” said Tim Watson, 57, a former airman, who has lived on San Diego streets for more than a decade.

“Then the van (mobile Vet Center’s RV outreach clinic) showed up the next week and the next and the next. When I knew they were here for the long haul, I came forward.

“Now starting Sept. 1 for the first time since 2002, I’ll have a roof over my head (an apartment in South Bay),” said Watson unable to check his tears. “This has changed my life. Now I tell all veterans about this program.”

Likewise, former sailor Joey Bergman, 52, recently sought VA help after being homeless for “eight or nine years.”

“I didn’t understand how all the services worked,” said Bergman, who like Watson suffers from numerous
ailments. “I just felt the VA was for people with bigger problems than what I had.”

Costello wants to expand mobile outreach to the Midway District and other pockets of homeless veterans. Studies show that delivering psychiatric and health care to the homeless saves about $16,000 per person every year by cutting emergency room visits, hospitalizations and incarcerations.

Capitalizing in part on Vet Center inroads, a VA pilot program is providing medical care and housing never before seen by San Diego’s homeless veterans.

The VA’s pilot Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team program – or H-PACT – is a national program operating in more than 40 cities nationwide.

The program is proving so successful here that San Diego’s H-PACT program ranked second in the entire nation at lowering emergency room visits by its veterans.

Estimated savings last year totaled nearly $730,000. That amount is now believed much higher since the number of veterans enrolled has doubled to more than 200 and rises weekly.

“The whole point of H-PACT is point-of-care access,” said Dianne McGuirk, the program’s care manager in San Diego. “We want to be where homeless veterans are to provide care.”

San Diego won selection for H-PACT pilot program in 2012 when the VA was designing ways to fulfill its ambitious 2009 promise to house all homeless veterans by 2015.

The VA envisioned one-stop shopping for hard-pressed former military members that would connect them to medical care, employment and housing.

H-PACT helped Bergman find housing in just three days. “It’s pretty amazing,” Bergman said. “It’s transforming my life as I speak. I can finally see things happening for me. I can see myself getting better.”

Costello called the addition of medical services H-PACT provides veterans “phenomenal.”

A recent VA report on the H-PACT program found:
• 10,584 homeless veterans enrolled at 44 sites
• 28 percent reduction in emergency department visits
• 25 percent reduction in hospitalizations
• 85 percent of enrolled homeless vets getting mental health services
McGuirk said because of success these numbers reflect “there’s a good chance” the VA San Diego Healthcare System will continue the program once VA pilot funding runs out.
H-PACT program times and locations:
• First and third Fridays from 8 a.m. to noon at: PATH/Family Health Centers of San Diego at 1250 6th Ave., Suite 100, San Diego CA 92101. (Closed Sept. 19).
• Second and fourth Fridays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., outside the San Diego Central Library, 330 Park Blvd., San Diego CA 92101, where vets are seen in a mobile vet center (Closed Aug. 22 and Sept. 12 and 26.) This is in collaboration with the Vet Center mobile clinic.
• Currently, homeless veteran cannot sign up for care at mobile or walk-in locations. The San Diego VA hopes to start point-of-service registration at H-PACT locations in the coming weeks.

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