Month to minute: VA platform connects homeless veterans to services faster
The Department of Veterans Affairs is on its knees in several major IT modernization efforts, but sometimes seemingly minor improvements have the greatest immediate impact.
VA made several upgrades to its Status Query and Response System (SQUARES) during the pandemic, allowing the agency to connect homeless veterans to services faster than ever.
SQUARES is a cloud-based application that provides VA Homelessness Program employees and external service providers – such as shelters, food banks, state and local organizations, and nonprofits – a place to verify the identity and eligibility of a veteran.
Previously, veterans had to provide proof of service before they could begin receiving VA services under the department’s homelessness program, said Thomas Guido, senior director of the digital transformation center of GO.
“Most veterans would not have [documentation] than on them. This process could take up to two months to identify the veteran and verify their eligibility for different programs, ”he said in an interview. “This is really the big change. [With] this system now, it can be done in a few minutes. It takes about 10 minutes directly on the site of the service provider. “
The app integrates with the Master Veteran Index and the VA-DoD Identity Repository, which means SQUARES users can access these databases in one place.
The department has also built eligibility rules into the system itself, eliminating the need for a subject matter expert to manually apply VA rules to determine if a veteran can receive specific services, Guido said.
“There’s a lot more going on than just giving access to data,” he said. “This is actually a package that is most useful in a very simple and intuitive way for these suppliers.”
VA first developed SQUARES several years ago and the department’s digital transformation service has released several updates since. But these improvements took on new meaning during the pandemic.
“Certainly there were economic and housing tensions, especially for populations vulnerable with the pandemic, so changes and updates were made to support referrals to some of these additional services and programs – and also to identify where resources are available, ”Guido said. “It’s two-way. It’s not just a matter of verifying identity and eligibility. It’s about referral and tailoring services to the individual, the veteran who needs them, based on their current situation and available resources.
Tackling veteran homelessness has been a priority for VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development since 2010, when the two agencies formed a joint partnership to address the challenge. Both agencies succeeded in reducing homelessness among ex-combatants by 47% between 2010 and 2016.
But according to HUD’s most recent assessment, there were 37,252 homeless veterans in the United States on a single night in January 2020, a slight increase from 2019 numbers.
The hike involves VA Secretary Denis McDonough and HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who earlier this spring announced plans to review and update their homelessness strategies. The two secretaries said they would mobilize the forces of their departments to end the homelessness of veterans.
For Guido, this is where VA’s digital transformation hub can play a role.
“Often, IT people are disconnected from the front lines. We’re watching television. We are monitoring frontline workers and first responders who face situations, as well as the commitment, the courage and whatever is going on, ”he said. “I’m not suggesting that we feel this or that we experience this. But this is our opportunity… as IT professionals to shoulder some of that responsibility. We are the ones who empower these first responders or frontline workers. We put the tools in their hands so they can deliver the services more efficiently. It’s something that we try to convey to the team, that same sense of commitment [and] emergency. It is not that for that. “
SQUARES has grown during the pandemic to accommodate more users, more than 2,100 VA employees and partners today, up from 1,000 a year ago.
The SQUARES dashboard lets them see local data, number of requests, hotspots, which organizations are seeing the most activity, and what types of services are provided or need them most.
“That’s why this expansion is so important, expanding the app’s footprint,” Guido said. “The more organizations that use, the more complete this picture becomes.”
The department also improved the SQUARES user interface, allowing VA service partners to access the platform on any device. VA service providers can also automatically onboard more of their own users and give them easy access to the app.
SaaS and low-code solutions essential to the response to the VA pandemic
VA uses a low-code Salesforce platform to power SQUARES. Guido said software-as-a-service solutions and low-code or no-code platforms have been key to delivering, modifying and updating applications, like SQUARES, over the past year.
VA’s Office of Information and Technology has been busy during the pandemic, creating new applications or modifying others to meet an ever-changing list of frontline employee needs. The ministry, for example, has deployed a chat bot to correspond with veterans about their COVID issues.
He also developed a new dashboard to track vaccinations among VA employees, contractors and volunteers, Guido said.
The digital transformation center has delivered at least 30 COVID-19-related applications since the start of the pandemic, Guido said. He modified 20 others to meet the specific requirements of the pandemic.
“We have an average of around 92 days of production on the platform, which is very fast compared to some historical custom-developed type projects,” he said. “This not only allows us to get products to users quickly, but we can also continue to iterate and make changes quickly, month after month, as quickly as two weeks, or faster if needed. As policies change and situations similar to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we can make those changes on the fly as needed. “
As is the case with SQUARES, sometimes it’s as simple as connecting the dots and putting together previously disparate pieces to make a difference, Guido said.
“This data existed before. Those old systems were there. These authoritative sources were there, ”he added. “But look at the significant or very significant change that has had on this program, just by adding this app. This is what we try to do, make these connections [and] Fill in the gaps where apps really add the most value. “