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Best Defense

Our obstacles in trying to help homeless veterans: Too little data, too much privacy

I had a couple of tours in Southeast Asia and I had friends who died and friends who spent time in the Hanoi Hilton. I wasn't impressed by those aircrews who were not willing to go back to North Viet-nam in late 1972.

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By Clifford Krieger
Best Defense department of veteran affairs

I had a couple of tours in Southeast Asia and I had friends who died and friends who spent time in the Hanoi Hilton. I wasn’t impressed by those aircrews who were not willing to go back to North Viet-nam in late 1972.

These days I am on a local Lowell Committee on Homelessness — The Continuum of Care.

We are focused on Homelessness, but right now we are especially focused on Veteran Homelessness. Our near term goal is to house all our local homeless Vets by the end of the year. We have subcommittees, we hold conferences and invite folks from across Massachusetts. This last Thursday we participated in, with VA and others, a Veterans Standdown as a way of getting information out to Veterans. And, we are writing a report on all this.

I would say our biggest problem is data. As Lord Kelvin said, if you can’t measure it, you don’t know what it is. HUD demands data. Local non-profit and other social services are not good at collecting data. One agency lost $45,000 in funds due to not being able to provide data.

An example of how data impacts is that in mid-summer we had a homeless person who everyone thought was a veteran (discharge unknown). He denied he was a veteran. We can’t get him veteran benefits if he is not a vet. His privacy prevents us from tracking down his history.

This leads to our next biggest problem, privacy. As an American Citizen I am all for privacy and wince every time someone says NSA.  But, in dealing with homelessness, including veteran homelessness, what data systems we have don’t talk to each other.  The reason is we are protecting the person’s privacy. At the same time, we are allowing some number to fall through the crack.

Friday I was in a two hour meeting (0800-1000) and for 1+15 we had the Policeman on the homeless beat in with us. For 45 minutes I could see our Chairperson get slowly more frustrated. Two problems.  The  Policeman (former C-5A Mechanic at Westover) isn’t sure that his writ really includes homelessness. More frustrating, he said he couldn’t share data.  No matter how we asked him.  He said we could go out with him, but he can’t pass data to us. It was an uncomfortable meeting.

The fact is VA won’t talk to others, nor will Social Services, and not the Lowell Transitional Living Center. Without the exchange of information you don’t know where you are.

Another example of info not being exchanged. A friend of mine, a former leader of the Greater Lowell Veterans Council, was telling me Thursday AM, at the “Standdown” about a retired USAF NCO who came home and nursed his Mother until she died and then arranged for his Downs Syndrome Brother to get into good care. Then he was evicted from his home. He got a one month extension from Housing Court, but he is now about to be out on the street. A homeless Vet.

After hearing this from Bob, I ran into Erik, our Veterans Service Officer (City appointed paid position). Erik is also the Commander of the local Walker-Rogers VFW (Rogers for the US Rep who introduced the GI bill for returning WWII Service Members — Edith Norse Rogers, local girl makes good). I relate the beginnings of the story to Erik, who says, yes, I know about it, but, privacy, I can’t give you details. Okay. I just want to make sure another Vet doesn’t fall through the crack. Then he adds, there is more to the story. Of course there is. I heard the next day that Erik had made a connection for him with the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center, which is probably the right match. But, sharing of information is very hard. And people are careful, to avoid getting their fingers slapped.

So, lets say Bowe B decides, after discharge, to come to Lowell and becomes homeless. The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness estimates the cost of housing individuals in emergency shelters at between $30,000 and $50,000 per person per year. That money is not coming from Catholic Charities. It is from bonds sold by the U.S. Government to finance the budget. If he gets in trouble with the law, or becomes a “snowbird” (getting incarcerated to avoid the winter) it is $53,041 pa. A nursing home is $113,150 pa.

I don’t remember the exact number, but we have a fair number of veterans in Lowell, and we attract the problem homeless from local towns, since we are the Greater Lowell region. We have 291 Publicly funded Dedicated Veterans’ Housing/Beds in Lowell itself, including 191 in the Lowell Housing Authority.

If Sgt Bergdahl is discharged with bad paper, and he doesn’t get a job (would you hire him?), he becomes a problem for his family and eventually his community. If he lives outside he can run up Emergency Room visits costing $40,000 or more a year. He may go into some sort of rehab (Spin Dry, as they say) and come out and be good for a while, but then fall off the wagon. For example, 43 percent of homeless stayed in Lowell’s VA and non-VA programs for 30 days or less. Thirty-one percent left in the three to six-month period. This is not a stable group.

And, they cost taxpayers money. I am in this to see folks housed and cared for, but I also realize that we can do better for everyone if we get control of this problem.

Sgt Bergdahl doesn’t stop being a problem once he is discharged into the dark cruel world. Unless he quickly gets a job (or commits suicide) he is going to be our problem for another 35 or so years.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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