Homeless veterans seek primary care, shelter

Orlando VA team in Lake Baldwin helps more than 380 vets

ORLANDO, Fla. – Hundreds of veterans are getting help from a primary care team established specifically for the homeless.

Dr. Susan Toth, Barbara Vidacs and Viana Garcia Jackson run the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team (H-PACT) in the Lake Baldwin Outpatient Clinic.

"We're the three amigos,"  Toth, a doctor at the Orlando Veteran Affairs Medical Center, said.

The trio started working together to provide outreach, shelter and medical services to veterans in Central Florida.

Jackson, a social worker, has worked with veterans at several VA facilities across the country.

"Working toward getting them off the street so that they can have a higher rate of success, with engaging in treatment," Jackson said.

Jackson has worked with veterans at several VA facilities across the country. She said Florida presents different challenges because some of the veterans they see only live in Central Florida seasonally, during the winter months.

"We've had people who've been, who've accessed care at the VA in 10, 15, 20 different VAs across the country," Jackson said. 

Engagement in health care is one of the primary challenges with the homeless population, according to Vidacs, who spent 24 years with the Army Nurse Corps.

"Particularly among the Vietnam population, there is a large population of veterans that have been very difficult to engage because of the history related to that wartime. And unfortunately, it still exists," Vidacs said. "I don't think our work will ever be done, as long as we continue to engage in wars and combat."

Toth said many of the homeless veterans in Orlando have chronic health problems that can become life-threatening in the hospital.

"We had one gentleman who was out in a tent, and one of the people in the camp called 911 and he had a heart attack," Toth said.

Toth described the man's condition as "touch-and go" initially. After surgery and rehabilitation, he survived, and her team helped him find a place to live.

"There are success stories out there, they might not be told in front of the cameras every day, but there are," Toth said.

According to the 2017 Point in Time Count prepared by the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, veterans make up 11 percent of the 2,074 homeless people living in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.

H-PACT at the Lake Baldwin Outpatient Clinic has helped 381 homeless veterans in the Orlando area. 

Toth said the team's goal in the next six to 12 months is to begin using a bus to provide mobile health care to homeless veterans closer to the shelters.