Because her father, grandfather and father-in-law all served in the armed forces, Kristen Weese, BA/MSW ’02, LCSW, knows what it means for them to have had welcoming homes with their family. And, when she had a chance to help veterans who did not have those basic comforts due to mental health, substance abuse or other issues, she embraced the opportunity.
"I can't think of any better cause than serving those who have served this great nation," she said. "My life and career experience has given me a very specific skill set to be able to assist this population."
Together with the support of her team of social workers, most of whom are SSW alumni, and multiple SSW interns, Weese helps homeless veterans and their families throughout Western New York find sustenance, homes, jobs, education, and their dignity. She accomplishes this through a program that has become a model for the VA network in eliminating bureaucratic barriers to provide immediate assistance.
Addressing the problem
Weese’s career in social work spans 15 years, encompassing mental health and substance abuse counseling, and medical social work. Since 2009, she has dedicated her career to Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) at the Veterans Affairs Western New York Healthcare System (VAWNYHS), first serving as a Department of Housing and Urban Development VA Supportive Housing (HUD VASH) case manager before becoming HCHV program manager in 2013.
"I directly oversee programs which offer emergency, transitional, and permanent housing to homeless veterans and their families," she said. "We also have an HPACT (Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team), a medical clinic for veterans in our program. In addition, we provide an outreach component; we go into local community shelters or to the street—we might get a phone call that someone appears to be a homeless veteran; maybe they're wearing a Vietnam War veteran hat, sleeping in the woods. We go out and find them.”
The HCHV program helps about 1,600 veterans a year. The resources were slim when Weese began her VA career—she was one of only six staff members. In 2014, then-First Lady Michelle Obama challenged U.S. mayors to dedicate their communities to ending veteran homelessness. Programs were added as funding increased and the challenge benchmarks began to be met. Now Weese oversees a team of 20, including 14 social workers, 11 of whom are SSW alumni.
In October 2016, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, HUD, and the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that VAWNYHS effectively ended homelessness among veterans in their catchment area.
"We're very proud that we were among the first to do that," Weese stated. This catchment area covers seven Western New York counties. Weese said that the designation means VA, together with the community, has the infrastructure and the resources to effectively and quickly house a homeless veteran and his or her family.
“‘Functional zero’ does not mean that there aren't or won’t be homeless veterans," she said. "It means that solid community relationships have been built and together we have the resources to assist any homeless veteran."
Weese’s VA awards, both national and local, recognize the creative solutions and the effective results that sustain the programs. She proudly points out that it is the work of a dedicated team. "We don't look at problems and say, ‘we can't do that.’ It's ‘how’’; how can we fix this, what can we do," she said.
In 2015 and 2017, Weese's program was recognized as a best practice. For example, it used to take weeks or even months to get through the Section 8 rental assistance process before a veteran could even begin looking for an apartment. "We completely streamlined the process, eliminating red tape and barriers," she said. "Now when a veteran comes in, if they don't already have their required documentation, we can get their birth certificates or discharge papers quickly from anywhere. We gather everything they need, and complete the public housing authority paperwork. We've become specialists in both filling it out and hand-delivering it, so that veteran can get their rental assistance voucher within about a week." Weese’s team created a toolkit with the different tools that they've used to speed the process, and have shared those best practices with the VA nationally.
Another nationwide problem that Weese's team addressed was the ability to work with a veteran once he or she is no longer homeless—to look at the factors that may have contributed to their homelessness in the first place and avoid it happening again. "To address recidivism, we had another best practice in 2017, around our HUD and community partner relationships," she said. "We were recognized for regular conferences with our public housing authority to address any housing issues. We developed a template to teach other VAs how to work collaboratively with their public housing authority."
The importance of case management
Weese particularly values case management. "I've been a mental health and substance abuse social worker. I've done home care. All of that gave me the tools that I needed to be an effective case manager," she attested. "If you don't meet the veteran's basic needs of food and clothing, how are you going to work on what's making them depressed or anxious? You can't.
"It's practically immediate gratification—we’re able to almost instantly change a challenging situation that a veteran may be in," she continued. "There's nothing more rewarding."
Weese credits her alma mater in part for the skill levels of her staff. "The UB School of Social Work trained us very well to be able to manage all of the needs of every person—not just the veterans. We ‘case-manage’ the whole family," she explained.
"We've become experts on knowing how to do things like get a homeless child enrolled in school," she continued. "I've gone to school boards with a veteran and their child, and said ‘this child's homeless, we need to enroll them.’ And they did. We can get that child to a doctor. We have resources to get children school supplies and Christmas presents."
Weese is particularly grateful for the work of SSW interns. In fact, five of the SSW alumni joined the staff after serving internships at VA. Three MSW interns currently participate in street outreach and case management for the veterans.
"We give students a unique, hand-on perspective on social work," relates Weese. "If a veteran is being evicted from his apartment for hoarding, we figure out a way to assist that veteran in cleaning it up. If a veteran has lived in the woods for several years and doesn't know how to unclog a toilet, we teach him how to use a plunger. It's basic stuff that most of us take for granted. We really show the MSW students what case management is and what we can do as social workers."
"The interns are completely embedded in our program, participating in every aspect. They even helped plan our annual Thanksgiving dinner and holiday party for homeless veterans and their families," she said.
In keeping with the team’s need to be flexible and uphold their “can do” attitude, the interns got an even more unique (and modern) hands-on experience recently. During a temporary relocation of the walk-in health clinic for homeless veterans, after their regular clinic flooded, they found themselves with no internet. Once armed with program-supplied iPads, the interns were able to continue to securely provide service for their clients, including accessing medical records, finding resources, and conducting virtual appointments.
"With the School of Social Work’s emphasis on appropriate use of technology for social workers, I was so glad we could provide our interns with the devices to be mobile and responsive, while not interrupting the flow of our work," Weese noted.
In addition to her own team, Weese praises the larger support from the administration. "The homeless program is a strong unit, and we have a committed VA Medical Center as well. They give us the resources that we need,” she summed up. “We also have a committed and passionate community. We all work together to get the job done."