Homeless Veterans Getting Little Help from VA Helpline

Too Many Calls ‘Handled’ by Answering Machines, Inspector General Says

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VA Hosts Fair Offering Health And Counseling Services To Homeless Veterans. Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Far too many of the homeless veterans who call the Veterans Administration (VA) National Call Center for Homeless Veterans helpline get “leave a message,” instead of help, according to a less than impressed federal inspector general (IG).

The Call Center is operated by the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA). Call Center operators are supposed to refer homeless veterans to specific VA medical facilities for assistance in finding or retaining housing or dealing with immediate medical conditions related to their homelessness.

“The Call Center operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to connect veterans with needed homelessness services and to provide callers with information on homelessness assistance and other VA services and benefits,” wrote the IG.

Ideally, the Call Center is supposed to be the VA’s main way of communicating the availability of VA homeless assistance programs and services to veterans. However, the VA’s own inspector general reported that of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the Call Center in fiscal year 2013, just under 27% (21,200) were only able to leave messages on an answering machine, because counselors were unavailable to take calls.

Answering Machines Make Lousy Helpers

Almost 13,000 homeless veterans who left messages on the Call Center answering machines could not be referred to VA facilities, because their messages were inaudible or lacked contact information; and another 3,300 homeless veterans who did leave all the necessary information were not referred to VA facilities, according to the IG’s report.

Even When the System Worked, It Failed

Among the homeless veterans who actually were referred to VA facilities, many failed to receive the services needed because the Call Center did not follow up on the referrals.

The IG found that of the approximately 51,500 referrals made in 2013, the Call Center provided no feedback or improvements to ensure the quality of the homeless services.

In a detailed examination of the records of 60 veterans referred to VA facilities by the Call Center, the IG found that 51 or 85% lacked any documentation from the Call Center proving the veterans had received any needed support services.

Finally, the IG found that the Call Center went ahead and closed – as in successfully handled – just under 24,200 (47%) referred calls even though the VA facilities had not provided any support services to the homeless veterans.

“In total, we identified 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.”

What the IG Recommended

As you might expect, the Inspector General recommended the VHA stop using answering machines in the Call Center, implement effective Call Center performance metrics to ensure that homeless veterans receive needed services, and establish controls to ensure the proper use of Call Center special purpose funds.

The VHA agreed and provided responsive action plans to implement the IG’s recommendations.

On the Brighter Side

Failures of the their Call Center aside, the VA announced in October 2014 that it would be awarding $207 million in grants that will help 70,000 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families.

In addition, the VA in 2008 began offering assistance to veterans facing foreclosures. Whenever possible, the VA works directly with lenders on the veteran’s behalf to establish repayment plans, forbearance, and loan modifications that can help veterans keep their homes.

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Longley, Robert. "Homeless Veterans Getting Little Help from VA Helpline." ThoughtCo, May. 17, 2016, thoughtco.com/homeless-veterans-getting-little-help-3321803. Longley, Robert. (2016, May 17). Homeless Veterans Getting Little Help from VA Helpline. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/homeless-veterans-getting-little-help-3321803 Longley, Robert. "Homeless Veterans Getting Little Help from VA Helpline." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/homeless-veterans-getting-little-help-3321803 (accessed November 19, 2017).