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Publisher Note: Interviews with Clinical Director/CEO Eldon Solomon, The Journey Home board of directors, Veterans Affairs, and former residents of the Journey Home have resulted in a three part series. The first of which is featured below. The News Gazette has taken an in-depth look at the history, challenges and the steps going forward to keep The Journey Home a successful attribute to the local community.

This week the VA Northern Indiana Healthcare system has placed a temporary halt on moving veterans to The Journey Home (TJH), a Winchester-based non-profit homeless veterans transitional housing program, after two recent deaths were reported to have occurred on the shelter’s premises.

On Monday,  Alex Sharpe, Public Affairs officer for the VA told the News Gazette that while the hold is in place, the VA will continue to work with the TJH “ to implement best practices around referrals and screening admissions, programmatic issues such as safety protocols and clinical services offered.”

Since February, there have been four drug-related calls to TJH, according to Winchester Police Departments reports.

On February 8, at 2:33 am, the reports states a call was made to local authorities that a 31-year-old male, who had been at the facility for a little over a month, had overdosed. The overdose of heroin resulted in the death of the resident.

On May 2 at 10:58 p.m. a TJH staff member reported a possible suicide attempt of another resident. According to that report, upon arrival officers were met with a resident who was “coming down” from a meth high. The resident was noticed to be acting strangely and with apparent signs of drug use. When further asked if he had thoughts of harming himself or others the resident denied it. When asked about this incident, Solomon, denied knowing the May 2 incident happened, stating neither his supervisor nor he was called to TJH to oversee the incident. He did however agree the other three calls happened at the facility.

Steve Cox a member of the board stated that just because the call came in for 325 S. Oak Street didn’t mean that it was necessarily at TJH as it does share the address with other occupants in the same building. When reminded that it was at 10:58 pm, it was suggested that it “more than likely” was there. Further confirmation was received by WPD Chief John Reed that the call was made definitely concerning a resident of TJH.  

On a third occasion, on May 5 at 3:31 a.m., another call was received for an unconscious, 30-year-old male, police records show. This call was a fentanyl overdose resulting in the death of the resident who had only been there a few days.

Further, on May 10 at 9:59 p.m. police received  another report of an unconscious subject. Officers at the scene used Narcan, drug-overdose reversal injection, to revive the subject. 

“Of those veterans entering TJH, probably 100% of them have had a substance abuse problem or is a current substance abuse user,” Solomon stated. “We do not condone the use of drugs or alcohol, but we are not a treatment facility to monitor and help defeat that habit either. Substance abuse is a huge priority but we do not force them to seek treatment as a requirement to stay at TJH. To do this would force them back on the streets,” Solomon stated. 

TJH is a low barrier standard facility meaning that they have very little prerequisite criteria that must be completed before they appear on the doorstep of the facility. “Some of the residents are the lowest of the low when they come to us, meaning they have burnt every bridge and have no where else to go. It could be due from substance abuse, other addictions or PTSD, we don’t really know until we get them here and evaluate their needs,” Solomon stated. 

This type of programming has caused red flags to be raised recently. “Since the VA contract we have totally had to change our philosophy from the original mission,” states Claudia Thornburg, board member. “We have been told that if we have a higher barrier threshold on the residents that we are at risk of losing funding from the VA so our hands are pretty much tied unless we become a full fledged treatment facility,” Thornburg continued. Being the low barrier type facility, things such as required drug searches upon re-entry to the building or daily drug testing is not performed at TJH.

Admitting to the identity crisis facing TJH, Solomon says there are three major questions the board and himself needs to ask. “Who are we? Do we need to readjust our mission? How do we do it?” Going forward Solomon states we want to be as transparent as possible. We are under the microscope by the VA daily. We strive to make sure the practices and protocols that are observed at TJH are in the best interest of the veterans,” Solomon continued.

“Twice weekly we do room checks and bed checks, if we feel that there are more needed, we can if needed. Our policy states that if a resident returns to the premises of TJH under the influence of any kind, the resident must leave the property until they are no longer impaired. Meaning if a resident returns to the facility and is believed to be under the influence of alcohol, they are breathalyzed and if they show signs of impairment they must depart until they can return and blow a clean test. Leading to the question then, where are they to go until then? Wouldn’t it be a liability for them to place a impaired person out into the community? What if they would leave in a vehicle and cause an accident? These were all questions asked and a response of lack of staff, training or licensing to keep them there.

We also have had area K-9 units come to the facility to aid us with the location of drugs on site if we feel it necessary,” Solomon expressed. Police Records obtained from Winchester Police Department indicate that since January 2020 there have been 2 drug searches performed by their K-9 Unit. “We could have done more possibly than 2 if it had not be for the COVID-19 outbreak,” WPD Chief John Reed stated. Due to the COVID-19 Solomon feels that the residents have experienced more anxiety, cravings and their issues have elevated due to lack of services offered to them. One day after the most recent death, authorities called in the WPD K-9 unit to do a search of the premises. That search resulted in one person being found with possession of methamphetamine and one person being found with possession of Fentanyl. The third was removed for returning to the facility impaired for a second time. These dismissals reduced the numbers of residents to a current count of 9 veterans at TJH.

“We are in an identity crisis for sure,” stated Solomon. When asked if TJH was broken, Solomon stated, “No but there is always room for improvement.” Jim Hufford, TJH Board President agreed they are not broken. “You have to remember we are a social experiment, maintained and started by a community that wants us here,” Solomon expressed. There are no other facilities exactly like ours.

See the May 26th edition of The News-Gazette to read further about The Journey Home and its role in the community.

The statistics show:

11% of adult homeless people are veterans defining a definite need for this type of service. 

20% of the homeless are male

68% reside in principal cities

32% reside in suburban or rural areas

51% are disabled

50% have serious mental illness

70% have substance abuse issues

50% are aged 51 or older

Approximately 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night

Approximately 20% of all suicides are committed by veterans