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VA's hotline for homeless veterans mishandled calls for help, report says

The Veteran Administration's $3.2 million homelessness hotline has botched more than half of the cases where veterans have asked for help, according to an audit by the agency's Office of Inspector General in Washington, D.C.

The hotline, touted two years ago as the agency's premier tool for funneling assistance to the nation's most vulnerable veterans, was designed to help meet the agency's goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

The Dec. 2 report said an estimated 79,500 homeless veterans used the hotline in fiscal year 2013. The hotline either did not refer the veteran to a local VA medical facility as required or closed the case without verifying that the client ever received care in more than half of the cases.

Counselors unavailable

More than a quarter of veterans who called got only an answering machine, the report said, in part because counselors who should have been available spent inordinate amounts of time at lunch, on breaks or, for unexplained reasons, not logged in to the system.

Night-shift counselors for the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week national call center, which opened in Canandaigua, New York, south of Rochester, in 2012, were unavailable an average of four hours per night. Calls that arrived then were instead funneled to answering machines, which handled more than a quarter of the center's calls.

"Providing callers round-the-clock access to counselors is essential to fulfilling the Call Center's mission of assisting and connecting veterans with needed VA homelessness resources," the report said.

Despite the report's findings, the hotline has helped the VA locate homeless veterans on Long Island, said John A. Sperandeo, the chief of social work at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. There are an estimated 700 to 800 veterans living without shelter on Long Island, Sperandeo said.

The hotline referred about 200 cases to Northport last year, Sperandeo said. The phone service supplemented the Northport VA's aggressive efforts to find beds, counseling and other services for hundreds of veterans who were homeless or in danger of becoming so, he said.

"Having the hotline has been a real asset," Sperandeo said. "Because it has afforded veterans another way to come forward to tell us they have a need."

The report said many veterans calling the hotline from across the nation never received assistance. Call-center workers spent about twice as much time logged off the system or on leave, lunch, work breaks or training during a day -- 61,000 hours -- as they did on answering calls or following up on them -- 31,000 hours, the report said.

In all, about 24,200 of the about 51,500 veterans who were referred to VA medical centers in fiscal year 2013 still had not received needed homeless services nearly a year after the call center made a referral and closed their case.

A VA spokeswoman said the agency is not disputing the inspector general's findings.

"We agree with and are implementing the recommendations made by the OIG and will begin use of a daily operational dashboard to assess performance of the call center," spokeswoman Sue Hopkins said in an email response to a Newsday inquiry.

Hopkins said the VA "will be looking at how call centers like the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans and others can be organized to make it easier for Veterans to take advantage of the services and benefits that Veterans have earned and deserve."

Joe Sledge, a spokesman for the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, said because the Long Island facility networks with a host of community-based anti-homeless groups, it may be less dependent on the hotline than some other VA medical centers are in the search for veterans without adequate shelter. Among other resources at its disposal, Northport hosts a Salvation Army-run veterans homeless shelter on the center's 300-acre campus, and contracts with a host of community-based shelter providers, including the United Veterans Beacon House in Bay Shore.

Veterans advocates say homelessness is a significant threat to economically vulnerable veterans on Long Island due to the area's high rent and utility costs and slow recovery from the recession. They also say many veterans fall into homelessness after struggling with mental problems stemming from post-traumatic stress or combat-related brain injuries that can go undiagnosed for decades.

"With housing so expensive here, it doesn't take them long to get in trouble," said John Rago, outreach coordinator for Suffolk County United Veterans in Yaphank. "We're getting a lot of Vietnam vets and Korean vets."

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