On Jan. 1, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) compiled a list for VAntage Point, the Department's blog, of 21 reasons why VA is heading in the right direction for 2015. Number 13 on that list was the continued reduction in the number of homeless veterans since 2009. According to the author, "In FY 2014 alone, VA provided services to more than 260,000 homeless or at-risk veterans in VHA’s homeless programs. Not all veterans required an intensive homeless program intervention, but for those that did, nearly 71,500 veterans were either placed in permanent housing or prevented from becoming homeless."
Be sure to read the blog post to see all of the other ways VA is working hard to serve our nation's veterans under the leadership of Secretary Robert McDonald.
In the current issue of NCHV's newsletter, available to NCHV members (learn more about joining NCHV), we highlighted a meeting from November when NCHV was invited to join other VSOs to speak with the Secretary directly. We were able to ask the Secretary directly about VA's focus on veteran homelessness looking ahead in 2015:
NCHV, VSOs Meet with VA Secretary McDonald
In early November 2014, NCHV, along with representatives from other Veteran Service Organizations, was invited to sit down with VA Secretary Robert McDonald in advance of VA releasing a progress update on the “Road to Veterans Day” initiative. The Secretary provided updates on numerous VA issues, and took questions from the gathered VSOs.
Secretary McDonald outlined the progress VA has made since beginning the Road to Veterans Day in September, which was a preview to the next day’s press release, available at: www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/pressrelease.cfm?id=2655.
He stated that VA’s key strategies over the past few months and for the future are to rebuild trust, improve service delivery, and set a course for longer-term excellence.
On his second day at VA, McDonald held a video conference and requested that each VA employee recommit to the values of VA: I CARE – integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence. He cited the importance of everyone being involved in making VA a better place for veterans.
The hot topic of the day was the wait time issue for veterans seeking appointments, and the Secretary reported that wait times were down 18 percent and continue to improve. That, along with extended clinic hours, mobile clinics, and veterans now having access to care outside of VA, should allow veterans easier, more timely access to the care they need.
Early in his tenure, McDonald gave out his personal cell phone number for veterans to call if they had problems. He reported that he had received 900 calls or text messages and solved about 30 percent of the problems reported, but, he said “We’ve got to design this organization so it doesn’t depend on my cell phone.”
The Secretary’s “Blueprint for Excellence” seeks to set that course. It is a set of strategies to make VA the preeminent healthcare organization in the world. The Department’s goals are to not just cure but prevent disease, and to have systems and operations in place throughout that spectrum with the highest level of quality.
Each VSO was alotted time to pose a question to the Secretary, and NCHV was able to ask “With all of the needed focus on the wait time issue and related, necessary improvements, how do we make sure that ending veteran homelessness doesn’t fall by the wayside as a priority for the Department?”
Secretary McDonald responded that even with veteran homelessness down by 33 percent since 2009, one veteran homeless is one too many, and we need to get that veteran housed.
He had attended a U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting earlier in the week, and explained that as a nation we’ve learned a lot about serving homeless veterans over the past several years. We know that we need to address the most basic needs before we can successfully address other needs, which is where Housing First comes in. Housing First will remain a priority of the Department, and a priority of the Administration. He cited the fact that the rate of return on Housing First shows that it is highly successful and the best approach.
McDonald also highlighted the importance of the 25 Cities Initiative, “If we can solve homelessness there, we’re virtually at zero.” The campaign also creates competition among mayors and governors, to instill a sense of urgency and pride in being among the first cities to eliminate veteran homelessness in their communities.
The Secretary stressed that VA and the other Federal agencies are learning a lot, and that will continue to guide efforts to get to zero moving into the final year of the Five-Year Plan.