(NewsNation) — In the early days of the pandemic, support workers for unhoused veterans faced a huge problem: Their work had always been done in person.
“How we were engaging our veterans: visiting them in their apartments to provide case management, going to shelters, outreach to tent encampments,” said Jennifer Nemeth, business operations and staffing coordinator for the Department of Veterans Affairs Homeless Programs Office.
Since they needed to reach people without a permanent address but couldn’t do it face-to-face, they gave them smartphones.
Since early 2020, more than 60,000 phones have been given to unhoused veterans, complete with a data plan and telehealth apps. The Homeless Programs Office found it not only significantly increased how many people were using an under-utilized telehealth program, but it also helped them find jobs, food and other necessities.
That, in turn, directly supported other programs leading to the large reduction of homeless veterans in recent years.
“Approximately the number of seats at Fenway Park, that’s how many veterans we put in permanent housing placement,” Nemeth said. “Telehealth services lent a hand in that.”
NewsNation spoke with Nemeth about how the “telehomeless” program worked and what it can tell us about getting more veterans into homes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NewsNation: What challenges were there in implementing the program?
Nemeth: COVID-19 was so new to the world at the time. And so a lot of our staff were concerned that they were losing track of the homeless and at-risk veterans.
You’re handing a smartphone to somebody who may be coming off incarceration, that needs our help finding permanent housing. Or you’re handing it to a veteran who has always had a flip phone. There’s a technology component that has to be taught.
NewsNation: How do you know it has been successful?
Nemeth: We’ve distributed over 64,500 phones to our community of homeless and at risk veterans, which has tremendously increased the use of our telehealth services. We went from 2,720 telehealth visits in 2019 compared to 149,000 today.
It’s most rewarding to see and hear about a veteran contacting their daughter for the first time in 11 years through FaceTime, to be able to know that they applied for job applications through apps online, that they were quarantined and could order their groceries delivered to their door — these are things that they did not have access to before.
NewsNation: What else have you found helpful through the video sessions?
Nemeth: There’s something telling about being able to have a VA video connect visit with our veterans that are in their apartments. You have that visit where you can say, “Hey, listen, I see you didn’t wash your dishes. Is everything OK? What’s going on?”
NewsNation: What are some of the other areas having a smartphone helps besides health care?
Nemeth: We were able to make sure that veterans have access to food, make sure that they have access to employment opportunities, to be able to reach out to social services, connections to their landlords — those are all things that are built into part of our treatment plans for our vets.
We look at these devices as much as cardiology looks at a heart monitor. This is our lifeline to our veterans — making sure that they’re successful in their treatment plan goals. Really giving our vets this competence to be able to communicate in today’s society.
NewsNation: What’s left to work on?
Nemeth: If I had to wave a magic wand, it would ensure homeless veterans had wi-fi and data plans forever, but it doesn’t work like that. The VA provides a one-year prepaid plan, and we work with them to make sure that they can secure a self-pay plan once the time limit comes to an end.