The deadline to end veteran homelessness is closing in, but a hotline devoted to the issue let thousands of calls go unanswered, a new report has concluded.
Established in 2012, the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans serves as the primary vehicle to connect vets on the streets with VA health and shelter services.
But the 24/7-hotline missed 40,500 opportunities last year because the group didn’t connect callers to medical facilities or closed cases before services were rendered, according to a VA Office of Inspector General audit published last Wednesday.
"This is a huge national problem," Rep. Jackie Walorski (R., Ind.), a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, told The Wall Street Journal, "our veterans deserve to have the phone answered when they call for help."
The call center’s major issues, the audit found, were staff failings and a reliance on ineffective answering machines.
Congress budgeted $3.2 million in special purpose funds for the call center’s operations last year. But because of poor time management and scheduling, veterans couldn’t get a hold of the hotline’s services they’ve earned.
Last year, nearly 80,000 vets reached out, but about 21,200 callers could only leave messages on an answering machine. Thousands of those messages were inaudible or didn't have the necessary information for a referral.
But staff had the manpower and the time to take those calls, the report concluded.
Some operators often logged off the telephone system in the middle of their shifts, or never logged in at all.
Counselors who worked the night shift, for example, were unavailable for an average of four hours each evening. The system had more than 900 calls forwarded to the answering machine during that same period.
The group didn’t stagger schedules so that more counselors were available during peak hours and staff members spent an "excessive" amount of time on administrative work, according to the audit.
The staff spent 19,400 hours on after-call work, 37,800 hours on "indirect time," which includes breaks, lunch and trainings.
Counselors allotted just 12,000 hours for responding to actual phone calls.
"In our opinion, the majority of these calls could have been answered by counselors, instead of the answering machine," the report concluded.
In fact, the report has called for the complete elimination of answering machines at the Canandaigua, New York, facility.
But even when homeless veterans got a human on the line, the counselors didn’t necessarily follow proper protocols.
In April of last year, for example, a homeless veteran living in a tent with his wife called the hotline for assistance. The group put him in touch with a VA representative the following day who suggested he look into a local shelter or contact the American Red Cross.
However, the VA representative didn’t confirm that there was space in the shelter, didn’t coordinate with other case managers and didn’t follow up to make sure the vet got the help he needed.
Still, the call center closed the vet’s case a day after it made the referral.
A year later, the audit found no documentation that the veteran and his wife had received the services they inquired about.
On a single night in January last year, just under 50,000 vets were homeless and the VA has committed to ending vet homelessness by next year.
As the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to overhaul its system, it says it remains optimistic that it will be able to streamline its services.
"We will be looking at how call centers like the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans and others can be organized," the VA said in a statement, according to the Wall Street Journal, "to make it easier for veterans to take advantage of the services and benefits that veterans have earned and deserve."