Recently, Amazon donated smartphones to more than 1,000 homeless Veterans, keeping them connected to valuable VA and community resources.
Marine Corps Veteran Jason Maycumber, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, is one of them. Taking pictures of the ocean and surf while posting them for family and friends on social media allowed him to stay connected with family.
Leveraging the capabilities of a smart device to take photos, connect over social media, have a video conversation or a virtual doctor’s appointment might seem commonplace in this age of technology, but for some Veterans like Maycumber, this connection was only recently possible, thanks to the VHA homeless program office and a donation from Amazon.
So far, it has provided more than 1,100 cell phones to Veterans engaged in VHA’s Homeless Programs, along with a term of pre-paid service that recipients could continue if they choose.
The phones were distributed via VA Medical Centers in Battle Creek, MI; Boston, MA; Kansas City, MO; Las Vegas, NV; Palo Alto, CA; and Philadelphia, PA. Like many creative solutions, the cell phones program was born out of necessity: Veterans in community housing or other group environments were being relocated in quarantine to try to slow the spread of the pandemic, and VA providers and Veterans needed a way to stay connected.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, Amazon’s donation made it possible for Veterans engaged in homeless programs to stay connected with their caregivers and support systems, particularly in instances where social distancing and quarantine limited access to face-to-face services and telecommunication resources,” said Nicole Harelik, national coordinator, Office of Analytics and Operational Intelligence, VHA Homeless Program Office. “We’ve received so much positive feedback from frontline staff detailing how these phones have helped maintain linkages, lifted spirits, and in some cases, saved lives. The VHA National Homeless Program Office is extremely grateful for our partnership with Amazon and for their generosity to the Veterans we serve.”
Peter Voystock, a homeless program case manager in Philadelphia who works with Veterans struggling with unemployment and mental illness, found the phones to be valuable in maintaining contact. Voystock was able to remain in constant contact with the Veterans who received these phones in order to support housing services and wellness checks.
“It has been an incredible help that bridges communication barriers for some of our most vulnerable Veterans,” he said.
More than just a connection
Staying in touch with VA was certainly one of the goals of the program, but the additional impacts of being able to maintain connections during the pandemic have been immeasurable. Without access to these phones, the social connectivity provided by mobile devices and services would not be available to these Veterans in need.
A senior Veteran receiving services from the Housing and Urban Development – Veterans Affairs Supporting Housing (HUD-VASH) program in Philadelphia was “very grateful” to receive his phone, according to caseworker Jill Mullin. Living on his own for the first time in many years, he was nervous about not being able to contact anyone for assistance.
“When he found out he was able to receive a free phone, he was really appreciative. He actually got a little teary-eyed when saying ‘thank you’ and assured me, ‘I’m going to take good care of this,’” Mullin said. The donated phone helped reduce his stress, feelings of isolation, and provided a way for him to stay in touch with both his caseworker and family during his move.
“I think it also helped him feel cared for,” Mullin added.
The Veteran uses his smart technology-enabled phone to call and make appointments with VA, but also to stay connected to family and friends, like his son in Iowa and a cousin who he recently called via video. “I hadn’t seen her in 30 years!” said Maycumber.
For more information about VA Homeless Programs and Services, click here.