VA's decision to pull plug on homeless-housing group is a mistake

CONSIDER THE IRONY: On the day that the city announced that it had "functionally ended" homelessness among veterans, word came that the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Medical Center was ending its contract with Pathways to Housing PA to house chronically homeless vets.

Seems that the VA facility - the one blasted in a 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General's investigation over mismanagement and distrust - thinks it can help the vets just as well, and more cheaply, in-house.

Trust them. . . .

If it was just a matter of putting a roof over a homeless person's head, maybe I would try. But the 126 veterans whom Pathways has housed through the VA contract, and - more important - kept housed, need a lot more than a key and a fruit basket from a troubled agency and a facility identified as its most problematic location in the nation.

These vets whom the VA is in such a rush to fold back into the agency are some of the most difficult to reach; that's why the VA contracted with Pathways to serve them. Many have serious psychiatric and medical issues. Others have refused to access any services from the VA. Many have lived on the streets for decades. And even when they do land in a safe house or program, they often fall through the cracks and end up back on the streets. Bottom line: They need the kind of support, attention, and hand-holding that I'm not convinced the beleaguered bureaucracy can handle.

When I met with veterans at the Pathways offices on Old York Road recently, they were fearful of losing their safety net. Some have cried at the news.

"They've walked me through everything," said Mike Anderson, 54, a veteran who suffers from PTSD. "They helped me get my housing voucher, they took me to a bunch of different places to talk to landlords, they help me pay my bills, everything. These people have shown me love. I know that when things get bad, I can come to them."

Sitting next to him was Tim Powers, 56, who suffers from severe diabetes, and who was on the streets for a couple of years while he tried to get back on his feet even though he had a housing voucher. "Without someone backing you up, it's just a piece of paper," said Powers.

A spokeswoman for the VA said teams are in place to meet each veteran's needs. "Almost all services are provided in the community and include home visits," said Jennifer Askey. "Additionally, there is always a staff member on duty at our office locations to provide support to any walk-in needs."

Sounds good, but despite touted improvements at the VA, I still have doubts that go way beyond a backlog of veterans-benefit claims that the agency says it now has under control. In July, a Philadelphia VA Medical Center staff psychiatrist who specializes in suicide responded to an image posted online by telling a gun enthusiast, who may have been a veteran, to "off yourself." In November, a veteran reportedly committed suicide at the Philly hospital. The veteran apparently was seeking psychiatric treatment.

Ken Wilson, a peer specialist at Pathways and a veteran, spent more than two decades in and out of prison and on the streets.

When Wilson was ready to turn his life around, he went to the VA. "They put us in an empty apartment and gave us the keys," he said. "There was no extra help to get furniture, food. The caseworkers were so swamped that they couldn't give us the help we needed."

Christine Simirglia, president and CEO of Pathways to Housing PA, said the transfer of services would be "absolutely debilitating" to the veterans.

"Our sad but pretty accurate prediction is that there will be a lot of really sick and needy vets returning to the streets in the coming months due to this change in level of care."

The VA says the transfer of services will save as much as $1.6 million a year - not much of a savings when you consider how much more it will cost if the vets return to the streets and end up in the city's emergency rooms and prisons.

Not much of a way to honor those who put their lives on the line to serve their country.

Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

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