Volunteers of America Eastern Washington will add behavioral health services with $4 million federal grant

The Volunteers of America plans to integrate behavioral health care into its Spokane housing programs with the help of a $4 million grant announced Tuesday from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

With a shortage of behavioral health resources in the Spokane area, program leaders realized early on in the COVID-19 pandemic that they needed to provide more in-depth services to help people find housing, said Beth McRae, director of development .

“There aren’t enough resources in the community,” McRae said. “We can’t take care of everyone in need.”

That’s what led Volunteers of America of Eastern Washington to decide to become a certified community behavioral health clinic.

“We needed to start providing more in-depth services for them to succeed in housing and stay in the home,” she said.

VOA runs 15 local programs, including three shelters: Crosswalk Youth Shelter, Hope House Women’s Shelter and Young Adults Shelter, along with a permanent supported housing program. The program will provide integrated care, meaning behavioral health clinicians will join people’s existing care teams, McRae said.

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Homeless people are often traumatized by the loss of their housing, McRae said. They are also traumatized by living on the streets, she said.

They’re used to being in survival mode, worried about where they’ll sleep that night or where they’ll get their next meal, McRae said.

“Everyone who is homeless right now I guarantee you are struggling with depression,” she said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t.”

Once it’s settled, it’s quiet, McRae said. People spend more time alone and it can be difficult to adjust, she said. They may also discover chronic health problems they didn’t realize they had until they were in a safe place away from the stresses of homelessness, McRae said.

At that point, they need to work on processing and healing their traumas to move toward their goals, McRae said.

“That kind of goes away, and then maybe the next thing they have to work on is the trauma of being homeless or the trauma of the things that cause homelessness,” McRae said. “That’s where we need behavioral health care to really address those issues so people can move forward in a healthy way.”

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After deciding to add behavioral health to its services, VOA conducted an assessment to find out what people wanted in their programs. Then they reached out to existing community providers for advice, McRae said.

In January, VOA hired Esa Lariviere to be 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 personnel and a medical director. These providers will join existing care teams that often include a peer support specialist and a case manager.

The program will complete all of its new licensing requirements with the Department of Health, McRae said. By the end of the first year, they hope to have about 100 participants receiving behavioral health services.

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Those people will mostly be in the permanent supportive housing program, McRae said. There are currently about 220 people in the supported housing program, she said.

About 2,700 people use VOA services each year, but not all of them need behavioral health care; some stop in for a bus pass or use shelters in transition in their lives, she said.

Each year the program should add about 100 participants, with a goal of 500 people receiving behavioral health care by the end of the four-year grant.

To become a certified community behavioral health clinic, VOA will allow insurers to bill for their services, which helps the program be sustainable, McRae said. There is also the option to extend the SAMHSA grant beyond the initial four years, she said. The new VOA certifications will also apply for a number of new grants, McRae said.

The non-profit also relies on local donors and community fundraising.

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