During the course of a year, Grand Island might have as many as 150 veterans who are homeless.
Linda Twomey said the Department of Veterans Affairs goal is to get that number to zero. Twomey, who is the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System mental health specialty programs director, made those comments during Thursday's "Stand Down" event, which was offered in conjunction with Project Homeless Connect.
"Stand Down" is a military term that means veterans are removed from the combat field to receive rest and rehabilitation.
Twomey said the VA has done stand-alone "Stand Down" events in the past, but decided to do the one-day project in collaboration with Project Homeless Connect in the hope of reaching even more homeless veterans. She said that if a homeless veteran happened to come in for Project Homeless Connect, he or she could be redirected to the VA program, which was in a separate portion of the Evangelical Free Church.
In the past, stand-alone VA efforts have reached perhaps 30 veterans at a time, but VA officials were hoping that by cooperating with Project Homeless Connect, they could reach as many as 50 veterans who may be in need of services, she said. "If we got 50 veterans, we'd be thrilled."
When many people hear "VA," they immediately think about the VA Medical Centers, where veterans can receive a wide variety of medical services, from surgery and rehabilitation on down, Twomey said.
Although medical care is an important part of the VA, it also can offer case manager or supportive services for homeless vets. For example, homeless veterans can receive help with getting jobs through different programs, Twomey said. The ability to have a steady job is one key for a veteran who wants to have secure housing.
Twomey said that perhaps 70 percent of homeless veterans have a substance-abuse problem and 60 percent of them have a mental health issue. She said services that help veterans overcome such problems are a key to keeping a job, which in turn pays for shelter.
The VA has a number of programs that can help veterans with their housing needs. One program in Grand Island is providing a transitional home that will give nine veterans shelter for a maximum of one year, Twomey said. One of the requirements for veterans who live in the building is that they work.
Twomey said that retaining a job while living in the VA building helps veterans learn the job skills they need to remain employed after they leave the VA home and are expected to provide for their own housing.
Other parts of case management for homeless veterans can include ensuring that they get the benefits they are entitled to receive, Twomey said. Such benefits can include the Service Connected Disability Benefit. She also noted that veterans who served during wartime might be eligible for the veteran pension.
While the VA has its own programs for homeless veterans and other veterans, case management often involves the VA helping a veteran make the proper connections with community-based services that can help him or her find permanent housing, Twomey said.
Thursday's "Stand Down" program provided some immediate services for veterans such as limited free clothing and a hot meal. Eligible homeless veterans could also receive free health screenings and a general VA assessment that could start the process of connecting them to needed services.
Normal procedure is for veterans to enroll for VA health care benefits at the Grand Island Veterans Affairs Medical Center, 2201 N. Broadwell Ave. But veterans who were not enrolled for VA health care benefits were allowed to register Thursday and receive information about available services.
Twomey said the VA does a yearly "point-in-time" check on the number of homeless veterans in Grand Island. Because some veterans become homeless during the course of the year and others are able to find shelter during the course of the year, the total number of homeless veterans in Grand Island in a calendar year is estimated to be 150 people.
She said that homeless veterans can include people who are sleeping outside or in their car, as well as people who are perhaps "couch surfing" by getting short-term stays with family members or friends.
Twomey said the 2011 point-in-time check revealed 39 homeless veterans, with that number dropping to 28 in 2012's point-in-time check. Those 28 people included 13 sheltered and 15 unsheltered veterans.
Nationally, it was estimated that the U.S. had an estimated 76,000 homeless veterans in 2011 and an estimated 67,000 homeless veterans in 2012. Twomey said the goal is also to get that number to zero.