Weekly Columns

This is the third in a series of columns on efforts to help veterans struggling with mental health issues. Read the first entry on veteran suicides here and the second one on PTSD here.

We can’t talk about how to help homeless veterans without incorporating mental health solutions into the conversation. The two issues go hand-in-hand.

Some homeless veterans may have been dealing with mental health struggles before they even transitioned to post-service life. For others, it’s brought on by a struggle to return to civilian life. The mounting anxiety and stress only gets worse with an inability to provide a home for oneself. Homelessness can easily lead to severe depression and despair. In too many instances, homeless veterans turn to destructive means to cope, such as substance abuse. These are serious issues that only get worse as time without a place to call home drags on.

That is why it is crucial to include mental health care in our overall strategy to help reintegrate homeless veterans and reach those at risk of homelessness. For the past two sessions of Congress, Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and I have introduced legislation that would ensure key Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) programs that help homeless veterans are allowed to continue.

One of those programs we’ve sought to reauthorize—the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) program—offers outreach, exams, treatment, referrals and case management to veterans who are homeless and dealing with mental health issues, including substance use. At more than 135 HCHV sites, VA specialists provide the tools and support necessary for veterans to get their lives on a better track.

HCHV is just one of a number of programs offered by the VA to help homeless veterans and those at risk of homelessness overcome mental health struggles. The oldest program—The Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans (DCHV) Program—dates back to the Civil War. Established to provide services to economically-disadvantaged veterans, it has evolved over time from a "Soldiers' Home" to an active clinical rehabilitation and treatment program providing state-of-the-art, high-quality residential rehabilitation and treatment services for veterans with mental health and addiction issues.

Programs such as these provide essential services that are necessary for homeless veterans to rebuild their lives. Through these programs, VA employees and their partners conduct outreach to identify those in need or at risk and help give them new lives. Those partners in Arkansas include organizations like St. Francis House in Little Rock and Seven Hills Homeless Center in Fayetteville, which get a portion of their funding from Congressionally authorized programs that have a proven track record of effectiveness. The VA’s Vet Centers also provide community-based counseling, outreach, and referral services to help connect homeless veterans with all kinds of services, including mental health and housing. It is important that we continue programs that enable private organizations and the VA to provide services to help get veterans into housing and on a track to healthier lives. 

We have seen successes in the effort to end homelessness among our veterans, in part because we have taken a holistic approach. We must continue to move forward in this direction. If we fail to recognize the need to include mental health care in our strategy, then we will fail to help homeless veterans restart their lives. We owe them more than that.