File photo
File photo

CITYWIDE — During a mental health summit organized by the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System last week, groups met to discuss what can be done to help homeless veterans and their mental health needs.

Santa Monica is home to many vets who have become homeless because of lack of treatment, inability to find a job after coming home from serving in war, and mental issues stemming from wartime experiences.

On any given day, there are about 1,000 homeless veterans on the streets in the West Los Angeles area, which includes Santa Monica, according to 2011 numbers from the Greater Los Angeles Point in Time Count, said Michelle Wildy, chief of community care for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

Local officials are trying to learn from past mistakes and continue to offer services for vets who have experienced wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. The federal government also committed to ending homelessness in 2010, with President Barack Obama unveiling a plan to end it by 2015.

To accomplish this lofty goal, the government gave Los Angeles County, in addition to other nearby counties, $54 million to serve homeless vets for 2012-13, Wildy said.

Margaret Willis, human services coordinator for City Hall, said officials share the federal government’s commitment. City Hall is continuing to advocate for more housing for homeless veterans. She said homeless vets are a population that has been largely ignored for the past 20 to 30 years.

“Given the numbers of new veterans discharged, it’s a lesson learned,” Willis said. “It’s saying, ‘look we got to do better this time and not fail people like we did in the past.'”

Officials said they have to provide a system and a safety net to handle each unique situation that a homeless veteran might be in.

“Our goal is to meet vets where they’re at,” Wildy said.

Homeless vets can get assistance with mental needs and medical services at the VA’s West Los Angeles campus, Wildy said. For example, there are individual treatment services such as therapy groups for those suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

In order to be eligible for healthcare benefits at the VA, a homeless veteran needs to be honorably discharged or have a minimum of 24 consecutive months of service, said Nikki Baker, associate chief of public affairs at the VA.

“If someone isn’t eligible for services, we just don’t want to turn them away,” Baker said. “They will be evaluated based on their needs, and if deemed appropriate, we will see them and provide them services. We seem them on a case-by-case basis.”

Homeless vets have a few options around town to get help at places like OPPC, Step Up on Second, Inc., and St. Joseph Center in Venice.

At Step Up on Second, there are showers, laundry facilities, specialization groups, supportive employment and case management for homeless vets, Tod Lipka, CEO, said.

Homeless vets have access to all the services OPPC provides in terms of housing, medical care, and medical healthcare, said John Maceri, executive director for OPCC, Santa Monica’s leading homeless services provider.

In 2011, OPCC, along with the VA, Los Angeles County, Step Up on Second, St. Joseph Center and San Fernando Valley Community Mental Health Center, partnered together to form a pilot program called Project 60, which was aimed at helping 60 chronically homeless veterans into supportive, permanent housing. The project was funded by federal and county money.

The partners met their goal in one year and expanded the project to help 120 chronically and mentally ill veterans, Wildy said. The project, which is very close to reaching its 120 person goal, targets Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley.

Homeless veterans, who are part of the project, can get assistance at the two OPCC centers: the access center on Olympic Boulevard and the Cloverfield Boulevard location, Maceri said. To be eligible for veteran benefits in the project, homeless veterans need to be honorably discharged, need to be chronically homeless or have a disabling condition like a mental illness or chronic health issue, Maceri said.

“The ultimate goal is to get them into supportive housing,” Maceri said.

Homeless veterans can experience different mental health problems than people who are homeless, officials said. Veterans tend to experience post traumatic stress disorder after they come back from war and have been exposed to repeated trauma for a long period of time, sometimes going undiagnosed, Maceri said.

Some veterans have simple needs such as becoming housed and living in a safe place to begin the process of getting a job.

“The ultimate goal is to get them into permanent housing and reintegrate them back into the community they want to live in,” Wildy said.

For more information, call (877) 4AID-VET (424-3838).

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