“Soldiers need a tool to integrate back into the civilian world and family situations that will take practice but is practical towards relieving emotions and exposing false beliefs. Soldiers have bad habits and need a program that is attractive to overcome anxiety.”
~ Chaplain David Wateska
Palo Alto VA Health Care System
When it comes to preventing homelessness among very low-income veterans, evidence-based skills training to strengthen families and marriages has proven to be an effective strategy that helps veterans and can reduce significant taxpayer costs related to alleviating homelessness and other social and financial consequences of family fragmentation.
Kelly Kent, Senior Program Manager for Strategic Partnerships at the Corporation for Supportive Housing, CSH, reports that nearly 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and nearly twice this many are estimated to be homeless over the course of a year. Kent said veterans account for nearly a third of men who are homeless and are twice as likely to meet the definition of chronic homelessness.
Stephanie Berman-Eisenberg, president of Carrrfour, Florida’s largest non-profit provider of supportive housing, said integrating PAIRS relationship skills training classes into services for formerly homeless residents has helped promote housing stability and prevented others from becoming homeless.
“Family and marital breakdown is a leading contributor to homelessness and other stressors that lead to significant health consequences, incarceration, unemployment, and fuels cycles of poverty and despair among veterans,” Berman-Eisenberg said.
“PAIRS training has helped formerly homeless and very low income singles and couples improve communication skills, emotional understanding, and problem solving. Those are important resources to maintaining housing stability, personal and family resiliency, and improving their ability to access, utilize, and benefit from additional services,” Berman-Eisenberg said.
Kent said services that make a difference to promoting housing stability include counseling, health and mental health services, alcohol and substance use services, independent living skills, peer-to-peer mentoring, money management, community-building activities, vocational counseling and job placement. CSH and veteran leaders are hoping competition for $50 million in the Veterans Administration’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant will lead to innovative approaches and replicable best practices to alleviate and prevent homelessness among veterans.
In 2009, a program by the non-profit PAIRS Foundation in collaboration with the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia was selected as Best Practice by the Veterans Administration for the program’s impact on veterans and family members impacted by combat deployment.
“PAIRS is changing the lives of returning combat veterans and their spouses,” said Chaplain Ron Craddock, Chief of Chaplain Services at Charlie Norwood.
Research among low-income and very low-income participants in PAIRS training showed that six to 12 months after completing a nine-hour course, benefits for participants facing financial, housing, and job challenges included improvements in relationship cohesion and stability, communication, physical and emotional intimacy. Ninety-three percent of low and very-low income participants showed sustained improvements in their ability to resolve conflicts and overall relationship satisfaction.
Francisco Robledo, the foundation’s director of Hispanic programs, said the evidence-based approach is often more effective and far less-costly to taxpayers than counseling and therapy.
“Veterans respond well to training that respects their competence and delivers proven skills to strengthen their new mission. Classes quickly give them tools to develop the resiliency to protect their homes and families,” Robledo said.
Research by the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center team showed that while nearly 90% of veterans said their marriages were average to excellent pre-deployment, slightly more than one in three felt the same way after returning home. In feedback from more than 160 Veterans couples, evaluators found that before PAIRS training, just 14% rated their communication skills as positive. Afterward, the number of Veteran couples who reported a strong ability to communicate with each other jumped to 93 percent.
VA leaders around the country have seen similar results.
In southern California, Chaplain Dick Millspaugh, Chief of Chaplain Services at the San Diego VA Healthcare System, said the training for veterans provides, “A safe, loving environment to help you build even more loving relationships to those you care about with tools you can use every day.”
Chaplain Clifton Montgomery, Jr., Chief of Chaplain Services at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, said, “PAIRS delivers an innovative, proven approach to creating and sustaining relationships based on love and intimacy.”
Durham VA Medical Center Chaplain Audrey Langley Wilson called the training, “A must attend to explore personal issues prior to approaching change in veteran issues.”
Next month, reviewers will begin considering applications from nonprofit and consumer coalitions vying for funding from the $50 million Veterans Administration’s Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program (SSVF) that aims to help thousands maintain housing stability and prevent homelessness.
Laurie Ott, Executive Director of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project in Augusta, calls PAIRS a “force multiplier” that has been “a lifeline and is a critical component of keeping families together.”
“Our survey before and after PAIRS shows a profound impact on both couples’ perception of their relationship and hope for the future,” Ott said.
Successful applicants will provide supportive services, outreach, case management, assist participants in obtaining VA benefits, and also help participants coordinate and obtain other public benefits in their communities.
Chaplain David Wateska’s own experience serving in Afghanistan helped him better understand the challenges veterans face. After a four-day training in PAIRS, the Palo Alto VA Health Care System chaplain said he found himself using the skills to overcome anxiety.
“I found myself using these tools in my life as a way of cognitive therapy—it works,” Chaplain Wateska said. “This program has equipped me with practical tools to overcome anxiety. I believe anxiety is the main problem with returning Soldiers.”
Evidence-based interpersonal skills to overcome anxiety and the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been key to helping veterans maintain vital relationships and housing stability. Kent reported on a study that found “19% of soldiers who served in Iraq screened positive for a potential mental health disorder, including PTSD.”
“Anxiety has to do with memory and the effects of it can be catastrophic,” Chaplain Wateska said.
Chaplain Wateska said that since beginning service in the Army as a chaplain in January 2000, he has been trained in Prepare/Enrich and PREP’s Preventative Relationship Enhancement and BSRF – Building Strong and Ready Families programs.
“These programs didn’t work with anxiety to the extent that PAIRS does,” Chaplain Wateska said. “Soldiers need a tool to integrate back into the civilian world and family situations that will take practice but is practical towards relieving emotions and exposing false beliefs. Soldiers have bad habits and need a program that is attractive to overcome anxiety.”
Like many serving veterans, Wateska pointed out that “soldiers are sensitive and know when they are being treated like a number.”
“They cannot handle command driven programs. They will choose something that is colorful, quality, and honest,” he said.