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

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 lack 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 succeed once people were housed, said development director Beth McRee.

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

That’s why Volunteers of America Eastern Washington decided to become a certified community behavioral health clinic.

“We need to start providing more in-depth services so they can succeed in housing and stay at home,” she said.

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

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Homeless people often experience trauma that causes them to lose their housing, McCree said. They are traumatized even while 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, Macri said.

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

Once housed, it’s quiet, McCree 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 stress of homelessness.

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

“That kind of disappears, and then they need to work on maybe the trauma of being homeless or the trauma that causes homelessness,” McRae said. “That’s where we need behavioral health care to really address those issues so people can really move in a healthy way.”

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

In January, VOA hired Esa Lariviere as vice president of integrated care. They applied for a SAMHSA grant, which they received on September 29.

Over the next year, the program will hire additional clinicians, medical staff and a director of medicine. Those providers will join people’s existing care teams, which often include peer support specialists and case managers.

The program will meet all of its new licensing requirements with the health department, Macri 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 most likely be in permanent supportive housing programs, McCree said. There are currently about 220 people in the supported housing program, she added.

About 2,700 people use VOA services each year, but not all of them need behavioral health care; Some simply stop for bus passes or use shelters in transitions in their lives, she said.

About 100 participants should be added to the program each year, with a goal of 500 people receiving behavioral health care by the end of the four-year grant.

Becoming a certified community behavioral health clinic will allow VOA to bill insurance companies for their services, which helps make the program sustainable, Macri said. There is also an option to extend the SAMHSA grant after the initial four years, she said. The new certifications will also make VOA eligible for several new grants, Macri added.

The nonprofit also relies on local donors and community fundraising.

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