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 residential programs, with help from 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 in the COVID-19 pandemic that they needed to provide more in-depth services to help people succeed once they were housed, said development director Beth McRae.

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

This led Volunteers of America East Washington to decide to become a certified community behavioral health clinic.

“We need to start providing more in-depth services so that they are successful in housing and staying at home,” she said.

VOA runs 15 local programs, including three shelters: Crosswalk Youth Shelter, Hope House Women’s Shelter and Young Adult Shelter, as well as a permanent supportive housing program. The program provides integrated care, meaning behavioral health practitioners join people’s existing care teams, McRae said.

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McRae said homeless people often have trauma that caused them to lose their housing. He said he was also traumatized while living on the streets.

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

“I guarantee every single person who is homeless right now is struggling with depression,” he said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t.”

Once settled in, McRae said, it will be quiet. People spend more time alone and can find it harder to fit in, he said. McRae said they can find chronic health problems they’ve had as long as they’re in a safe place away from the stress of homelessness.

During that time, McRae said, they need to work on processing and healing their traumas in order to move toward their goals.

“That kind of disappears, and then the next thing they have to work on is the trauma of homelessness or the trauma that leads to homelessness,” McRae said. “We need behavioral health care to really address those issues so people can move forward in a really healthy way.”

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After deciding to add behavioral health to their services, VOA conducted an assessment to figure out what people needed in their programs. They then reached out to existing community providers for advice, McRae said.

In January, VOA hired Esa Lariviere as vice president of integrated care. He applied for a SAMHSA grant, which he received on Sept. 29.

Over the next year, the program will hire additional physicians, medical staff and a pharmacy director. Those providers often join people’s existing care teams that include a peer support specialist and a case manager.

McRae said the program will complete all of its new licensing requirements with the health department. By the end of the first year, he hopes about 100 participants will receive behavioral health services.

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Those people are often in a permanent supportive housing program, McRae said. The supported housing program currently has about 220 people, he said.

About 2,700 people use VOA services each year, but not all of them need behavioral health care; Some simply stop for a bus pass or use the shelter during transitional periods in their lives, she said.

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

McRae said that becoming a certified community behavioral health clinic allows VOA to bill insurers for their services, which helps the program be sustainable. There is also an option to extend the SAMHSA grant after the initial four years, he said. McRae added that the new certifications will make VOA eligible for new grants.

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

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