|A hotline responder at work at the Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-TALK)|
Homelessness can be a trigger for a downward spiral into suicidal thoughts. Recognizing this, the National Veterans Suicide Prevention Hotline proactively provides Veterans a way to change their circumstances. In March 2010, the hotline expanded and began providing services over the phone and online for homeless Veterans. Dialing 1-877-424-3838 directs Veterans to a unique line where they can request assistance and information on VA resources for the homeless.
Since its launch they have logged more than 7,500 calls, and each month the numbers dramatically increase. Homeless Veterans at a public computer can also use Homeless VeteransChat for a one-on-one conversation online with a responder similar to AOL or Gmail chat.
“We have set up the homeless program so that the manager of a grocery store who’s been giving someone a free donut and coffee for three days in a row could call us if he’s concerned about a Veteran,” said Victoria Bridges, the hotline’s supervising program specialist.
While the program is a different model, Bridges said it’s one that tries to provide as many avenues as possible for a Vet to receive care.
“By letting people know their options, we want to alleviate as much as we can the sense of powerlessness they have over their life,” said Pamela Kaufman, a hotline responder.
Understanding the range of situations a Veteran may be in is important to providing proper care. Throughout the conversation the responder not only explores options for local help but is also ready to offer assistance if the Veteran expresses thoughts of suicide.
After a phone call with the Veteran ends and he opts to receive care, a file is created. Each file will be marked in one of three categories: emergent, urgent or non-urgent.
Emergent is the highest priority for a homeless Veteran file. This is when a Veteran is without shelter and money. There might be children involved or extreme temperatures of heat or cold. In such a dire situation, the classification indicates immediate assistance is needed.
Urgent situations are those in which homelessness is imminent within the next 30 days. In this case, a Veteran may have received a letter of eviction. While they may be working, their salary won’t be enough to cover the unexpected expenses of moving.
The final classification in situations of homelessness is non-urgent. An example might be when a Veteran may have a home but they’ve been told they need to find a new place to live. The Veteran may be without a job or has other factors that would eventually lead them to becoming homeless.
The classification will go on the file which is sent the Homeless Point of Contact (POC) at the local VA medical center. The Homeless POC will then work to connect the Vet to local resources.
Kimberly Mullen, a clinical care coordinator at the hotline, said that the exciting thing about these hotline services is that they can connect local POCs with Veterans they might not have come across. “They’re pleased about the level of accountability, and there is more assurance that [Veterans] won’t be dropped through cracks accidentally.”
The success of the hotline in reaching more Veterans each month and using local VA Medical Center programs has resulted in growth in VA’s homeless outreach programs. Plans are underway to expand both staff and services as well as incorporate substance abuse counseling.