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VA Targets Homelessness And Incarceration Among Veterans

Charlotte Albright
Congressman Peter Welch addresses summit on homeless veterans and the criminal justice system at the VA Hospital in White River Junction on Nov. 22.

There’s a new effort underway in Vermont and New Hampshire to keep veterans out of the criminal justice system.

Or, if they are incarcerated, to provide mental health treatment.

At a recent homelessness summit at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, the focus was on how to make sure that all vets have homes—and that those homes are not jails.

At last count, there were about 111 veterans in Vermont who would be homeless if they were not living in shelters.

Another dozen or so are homeless.

That, the VA says, is not perfect yet, but it’s steady progress. Now they want to make sure that veterans don’t get jailed when what they should be getting is help.

At the summit co-hosted by the VA in Vermont and New Hampshire, Deborah Amdur, Director of the White River Junction VA Hospital, outlined the aims of a new program called Veterans Justice Outreach.

“The goal of the program is that we avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental health, that we ensure that veterans who are involved in the criminal justice system have access to VA mental health services, to substance abuse treatment, and that VA is there to welcome them home out of prison, when they are ready to join us,” Amdur told the crowd.

Congressman Peter Welch told participants from the VA and the criminal justice system what he learned as a young public defender:

“I found myself talking with people who were my age from the Vietnam era. And they had gotten drafted and they had volunteered and I listened to their stories. And these were wonderful people who had done very hard things, and they hadn’t committed a crime, they were only in the criminal justice system because there was no way in the mental health system to give them the services they needed,” Welch recalled.

Veterans who do commit crimes need to be held accountable, officials said. But Gene Hitchcock, a veterans’ outreach specialist for a program overseen by the National Guard, says those crimes are rarely violent.  He was on active duty with the Navy for six years, and with the National Guard for 22 years.

“My son’s an Iraq war vet, my wife’s an Afghan war vet, so there really isn’t much you can throw at me that relates to veterans and deployments and family issues and all that I haven’t experienced first-hand,” Hitchcock said.

Hitchcock hasn’t had any tangles with the law, but he works with some vets who do. Mostly, he says, they get in trouble for publicly abusing drugs or alcohol or failing to manage their anger at home. He wants police to ask suspects if they are veterans before throwing them in jail.

“You know, they don’t get a bye, but to be fair to our veterans we need to consider whether that might be a factor in problems with law enforcement or our judicial system.”

More than 25 states have created special veterans’ treatment courts with alternative sentencing based on the offender’s willingness to seek treatment.

Some of those soldiers have told their stories on video.

Neither Vermont nor New Hampshire has these courts, but the VA Hospitals in both states are vowing to work more closely with police and judges to get veterans help before they get locked up—or, at least, afterwards.

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