United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Social Worker Helps Move Homeless Vets in Right Direction
Ken Barnum speaks to homeless veteran
Ken Barnum speaks with a homeless veteran about available programs. VA's social workers hit the streets once a week to find Veterans who need help from a variety of programs.

Ken Barnum used to jet around the world, marketing and selling products like Polaroid cameras or toys. He traveled so much that sometimes he would wake up and not know where he was.

All that changed a few years ago when Barnum started training for his Master's degree in social work. He did an internship at the Washington, D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center's homeless clinic, and never left.

"It's very exhausting, but it's also very satisfying to think you've moved someone in the right direction as opposed to selling stuff to fill up the garbage dumps," Barnum said. "In business, you're always striving for an advantage. It's like you've got your cards in hand, but you need to keep them hidden. But in social work, you show your cards."

While the main goal Washington, DC VA Medical Center's homeless clinic is finding housing for the veterans that come in, part of Barnum's job as a Health Care for Homeless Veterans social worker is also addressing the other issues that keep homeless veterans on the streets, such as substance abuse or mental problems.

That's where his outreach efforts with local homeless agencies, such as D.C. Central Kitchen and First Helping, pay off. Once a week, Barnum joins counselors from homeless agencies in the District or Montgomery County as they visit the homeless on the street.

"It's important for us to work with (local) agencies because they help us expand our outreach. If a veteran doesn't want to interact with the hospital, we don't want to force them in. What we want is to make people aware."

As the crowd gathers for helpings of food, toiletries and other items from these local homeless agencies, Barnum works the crowd, asking if anyone's served in the military. Not every veteran responds with an answer - at first.

Barnum explains that it's about building familiarity and trust.

"Some people have a real phobia about coming to VA, especially those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," Barnum says. "But if you can engage with them in a neutral area and build a relationship, it makes it easier to get them in."

And once a veteran enters VA programs, Barnum says they're going to come out better than they came in - if they make the effort.

"If they're willing to engage with us, they will change," Barnum added. "They will come out more powerful than they came in."

The programs that Barnum can open to homeless veterans include many programs, such as:

  • Community Homelessness Assessment, Local Education, and Networking Groups (CHALENG): A nationwide initiative in which VA medical center and regional office directors work with other federal, state, and local agencies and nonprofit organizations to assess the needs of homeless Veterans, develop action plans to meet identified needs, and develop directories that contain local community resources to be used by homeless Veterans.
  • Domiciliary Care for Homeless Veterans (DCHV): A program that provides biopsychosocial treatment and rehabilitation to homeless Veterans.
  • HUD-VASH: A VA-Supported Housing (VASH) Program with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), it provides permanent housing and ongoing case management treatment services for homeless Veterans who would not be able to live independently without the support of case management.
  • Stand Downs: Every January for the past 20 years the VA Medical Center in D.C. gives homeless Veterans 1-3 days of safety and security where they can obtain food, shelter, clothing, and a range of other types of assistance.
  • Compensated Work Therapy/Transitional Residence (CWT/TR) Program - disadvantaged, at-risk, and homeless Veterans live in CWT/TR community-based supervised group homes while working for pay in VA's Compensated Work Therapy Program (also known as Veterans Industries).

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