Volunteers of America plans to integrate behavioral health care into its Spokane housing programs through a $4 million grant announced Tuesday by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
With a lack of behavioral health resources in Spokane County, program leaders realized at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that they needed to provide more in-depth services to help people succeed once they found housing, said Development Director Beth McRae.
“There aren’t enough resources in the community,” McRae said. “We just can’t take care of everyone who needs it.”
This led Volunteers of America Eastern Washington to decide to become a certified community behavioral health clinic.
“We had to start providing more in-depth services so they could successfully find housing and stay at home,” she said.
VOA operates 15 local programs, including three shelters: Crosswalk Youth Shelter, Hope House Women’s Shelter and Youth Shelter, as well as a permanent supported housing program. The program will provide integrated care, meaning behavioral health doctors will join people’s existing care teams, McRae said.
Homeless people often have trauma that caused them to lose their housing, McRae said. They are also traumatized by living on the streets, she said.
They’re used to being in survival mode, worrying about where they’ll sleep that night or get their next meal, McRae said.
“I guarantee that every person who is homeless right now is struggling with depression,” she said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t.”
Once housed, it’s quiet, McRae said. She said people are spending more time alone and it can be difficult to adjust. They also may discover chronic health problems they weren’t aware of until they were in a safe place away from the stressors of homelessness, McRae said.
At that point, they have to work on processing and healing their injuries to move toward their goals, McRae said.
“That kind of goes away and then the next thing they probably have to work on is the trauma of homelessness or the trauma that leads to homelessness,” McRae said. “That’s where we need behavioral health care to really address these issues so that people can really move forward in a healthy way.”
After deciding to add behavioral health to their services, VOA conducted an assessment to see what people needed in their programs. They then reached out to existing community service providers for advice, McRae said.
In January, VOA hired Essa Lariviere as vice president of integrated care. They applied for the SAMHSA grant, which they received on September 29.
Over the next year, the program will hire additional clinicians, medical staff and a medical director. These providers will join people’s existing care teams, which often include a peer support specialist and a case manager.
The program will complete all of its new licensing requirements with the Health Department, McRae said. By the end of the first year, they hope to have about 100 participants receiving behavioral health services.
Those people will mostly be in the permanent supportive housing program, McRae said. She added that there are currently about 220 people in the supported housing program.
About 2,700 people use VOA services each year, but not all of them need behavioral health care; some simply stop to get a bus pass or use the shelters during periods of transition in their lives, she said.
The program should add about 100 participants each year, so that 500 people will receive behavioral health care by the end of the four-year grant.
Becoming a certified community behavioral health clinic will allow VOA to bill insurers for their services, which helps the program be sustainable, McRae said. She said there is also an option to extend the SAMHSA grant beyond the initial four years. The new certifications will also make VOA eligible for many new grants, McRae added.
The nonprofit also relies on local donors and community fundraising.