Wednesday, June 19, 2013
PORTLAND - Officials are intensifying efforts to convince the Maine Veterans Affairs Medical Center to reinstate a full-time counselor position at the city's Oxford Street Shelter.
The full-time VA representative has been credited with connecting homeless veterans with services more quickly and reducing the number of nights they must stay at the shelter. The position, created in 2011, was cut in June.
City officials have been lobbying the VA Maine Healthcare System and are getting support from the state's two congressional representatives. They argue that not filling the position is contrary to a federal initiative to end homelessness among veterans.
Both Reps. Michael Michaud and Chellie Pingree sent letters to the VA, pointing out that U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and President Obama have made eliminating homelessness among veterans a top priority.
"Given the large amount of homeless veterans in the Portland area, I request you reconsider (the) VA's decision and employ a full-time service representative at this location immediately," Pingree wrote on Aug. 22. "I believe this type of collaboration among VA and other providers is the best way to achieve Secretary Shinseki's goal of ending homelessness among veterans."
Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, the majority owner of MaineToday Media, which owns the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram and other papers.
"This position resulted in immediate and tangible benefits to the veterans in Portland, specifically those seeking assistance at the Oxford Street Shelter," Michaud, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said in a July 16 letter.
The full-time VA counselor position was created in 2011, after years of lobbying the VA, according to Josh O'Brien, director of the Oxford Street Shelter.
O'Brien said staff had noticed an increase in the number of homeless veterans who could not access traditional VA services, either because they were jaded by previous experiences with the agency or didn't have the means to make it to appointments.
The representative "personalized the VA, where people were finally able to trust the VA and engage the VA again," O'Brien said. "That credibility led to some incredible outcomes for folks that had been on the streets for years but not accessing VA services."
O'Brien said veterans accounted for about 21 percent of those seeking shelter from 2005 to 2007. After focusing more internal resources to homeless vets, that percentage dropped to 18 percent in 2009 and 15 percent in 2010.
Since the full-time VA representative joined the shelter staff in July 2011, those numbers declined further to 12 percent in June 2012, O'Brien said.
O'Brien said the VA representative had access to military discharge records, which are vital to determining whether a veteran is able to access benefits. Doing that determination in-house saves weeks, and sometimes months, in connecting vets to benefits, he said.
The VA staffer also had access to medical records and could easily make appointments, said O'Brien, noting the position was touted at a recent regional VA conference.
O'Brien said the former counselor, who left because her husband, a U.S. Coast Guard member, was reassigned to Alaska, gave several months notice so services would not be affected. The city was informed two weeks before her departure that the VA's resource review board had decided not to refill the position.
"They didn't give us specifics" about why the position was not filled, O'Brien said.
Officials at the VA Medical Center could not be reached by email or phone for comment.
Without an in-house VA expert, veterans must stay longer at the shelter at a time when the city is experiencing record levels of people seeking shelter -- a situation that often forces the city to house people overnight in chairs in the general assistance office.
"Somebody that could be housed really quickly -- in a matter of days from when the verification comes in -- they're still languishing in the shelter for weeks" without expert assistance, O'Brien said.
The shelter has already seen an increase in the number of veterans staying more nights in the shelter since the position was cut, he said.
"We're at the very beginning of that impact," O'Brien said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: