Could treatment-first approach be better at helping at-risk veterans?

Nonprofit: Treatment helps prevent homelessness

CINCINNATI -- Dylan Honnerlaw spent six years in the U.S. Army Reserve as a power plant engineer. After he served, Honnerlaw got stuck in what he calls "that vicious cycle of not really having a direction."

He spent time in jail. He lost everything. He had a drug addiction.

Honnerlaw is now getting help at Joseph House, where he's living and receiving treatment for his addiction. The nonprofit organization, on Republic Street in Over-the-Rhine, is dedicated to helping veterans live independent, drug-free lives -- specifically, homeless veterans.

With Honnerlaw, "homeless" is something of a gray area. Advocates argue he's a good example of why the federal government must change its approach -- and they're running out of time for that change to happen.

The Department of Veterans Affairs pays Joseph House to help homeless veterans fighting an addiction. But the VA doesn't provide money to help veterans fighting an addiction who could become homeless as a result of it.

Dylan Honnerlaw served in the U.S. Army Reserve as a power plant engineer. (Photo provided)

Honnerlaw falls into the latter category. He did not qualify as "homeless" under federal guidelines, and so Joseph House isn't getting government funding to help him. Instead, he's something of an experiment to show federal officials why a change is needed.

Nathan Pelletier, Joseph House executive director, thinks the VA should pay organizations like his to target clinical treatment first. He believes that approach would help prevent veterans from becoming homeless in the first place.

"They may have addiction issues, they may have mental health issues, but if we deal with it early, we can also make sure we're addressing it as they're reintegrating versus allowing it to matriculate and get worse," he said.

Instead, Pelletier said, the VA focuses on putting homeless veterans into permanent housing. The statistics might look good, with a high number of formerly homeless veterans taken off the streets. But the underlying issues haven't been addressed.

Another problem with this approach: The definition of "homeless" changes all the time. Joseph House only gets funds if a veteran is qualified as homeless under a definition from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That definition has changed twice in the last two years.

Joseph House could run out of money in 21 months, as the federal grant it's relied on for years will no longer be available. Eligibility requirements were rewritten, and so now Joseph House is in the first of two years of eligibility under the new guidelines.

Pelletier isn't sure his organization will survive.

"If you take away the funding and it was the basis of Joseph House to begin with," he said, "then there's no Joseph House."

Allies took the message to Congress last week.

John Clancy, president and CEO of the Tri-State Veterans Community Alliance, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs. His message: It's better and less costly to get veterans into treatment before they become homeless than to deal with both homelessness and addiction later.

John Clancy's testimony by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

"There's an advantage to moving upstream, where we can work more on the prevention side so we have fewer veterans who need the vouchers for homelessness," Clancy said.

The vouchers are through HUD's Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, and they help chronically homeless veterans pay for rent. According to the VA, the program "does not try to determine who is housing-ready or demand treatment prior to housing. Instead, treatment and other support services are wrapped around Veterans as they obtain and maintain permanent housing."

To Pelletier, that approach isn't solving the real problem.

"There's a lot of good things with housing first. But a lot of those who were pushed into HUD's (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) program or into permanent housing, the recidivism is high, and they end up coming back here eventually," he said.

Before Joseph House, Honnerlaw put himself through other in-patient treatment programs. At the end, he was left to his own devices, using drugs as his coping mechanism. If not for Joseph House, he thinks he'd be there again.

"It would not be a good place. I would have been released onto the streets with nowhere to go and that vicious cycle of dealing with hard situations unresponsibly would have continued for sure."

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