One Month After Memorial Day: What Has Happened In Your City to Support Veterans?

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About a month ago, many of us were making final plans for the unofficial start of summer. Memorial Day is a day to reflect and honor the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Flags are hung, we bow our heads in remembrance, and in our own ways we say thank you. But our veterans deserve more than thanks. They deserve action.

At the National Press Club last week, former Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) was joined on a panel by Dr. Jonathan Sherin of Volunteers of America, Kelly Caffarelli of The Home Depot Foundation, and Kobe Langley of the Corporation for National and Community Service for a forum titled: After the Uniform 2013: Facing the Invisible Wounds of War. Moderated by Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, the panel discussed the implications of wounds such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and sexual trauma on the stability and reintegration of veterans in communities.

The panel discussed the effect of having less than 1 percent of Americans serve in Iraq or Afghanistan. All of the panelists spoke about the varying impacts multiple deployments have had on these men, women, and their families. Their needs can be deep, complex, and have consequences that ripple through our communities in ways that we may not easily see.

Whether the needs relate to housing, employment, mental health, education, healthcare, or child care, the panel acknowledged that community-based solutions are the most effective way to address these needs. Top down solutions are unable to adapt to local conditions without local leadership. As a result, Senator Lugar pointed out, “Mayors and local leaders must be conveners in communities.”

Local level convenings can yield important insights about resources that are already in communities but may not be being used as effectively as possible. Regular meetings can identify gaps in service and help identify specific needs. Once specific needs are identified, the visibility of local leadership can help bring missing stakeholders to the table, who can help address these needs.

This is already happening in many cities both large and small. In a new case study published this week, we highlight work happening in Washington, D.C. Through the city’s Department of Veterans Affairs, city officials and the overall community is kept informed of veterans’ issues and the range of services available. By establishing partnerships with area stakeholders and committing to providing housing and supportive services, D.C. has seen a 29 percent decrease in veteran homelessness over the last four years.

One example of local coordination heightened as a result of regular stakeholder meetings is D.C.’s furniture give-away program. Starting in 2011, the city has partnered with various local government and community organizations to coordinate a volunteer-driven system to provide furnishings free of charge to veterans moving into new homes. The city offered a no-lease warehouse donated by the D.C. Department of General Services, and have worked with local military bases and private organizations to acquire excess furniture estimated to be worth more than $700,000. The local teamsters union provides volunteer drivers and a vehicle to transport the furnishings to veterans in need on a weekly basis. To date, over 160 veterans received furnishings from the program.

A similar effort is underway in central Texas. As a part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign, the regional VA office is working with the Central Texas Council of Governments, area non-profits, local housing authorities, and local leaders. Like stakeholders in Washington, D.C., the central Texas team has identified that a storage space for donated furniture and transportation is one of their needs. The team has engaged with city officials from Belton, TX, who are currently in the process of seeing what resources either the city or private partners in the area may be able to offer to meet these needs.

We are only now beginning to understand the true impacts of invisible wounds. With an estimated 22 veterans committing suicide each day, deaths by suicide exceeding combat related deaths in 2012, and an on-going backlog of VA benefit claims, veterans issues are clearly a national emergency. But this national emergency is also a local opportunity.

The opportunity is the chance to improve service coordination in your community that will help not only veterans, but other special needs populations such as the elderly and disabled. In addition, as veterans are reintegrated into their communities, they will bring the financial benefits they have earned into the local economy. Furthermore, these men and women have characteristics that many employer are looking for, such as discipline and an ethic of team work and service.

As communities begin to understand what works, this knowledge can be syndicated nationally. There will not be a solution to every problem, but we cannot let the desire for perfection obstruct the path to improvement.

Learn from other examples of what cities are doing to serve veterans at www.nlc.org/veteranshousing and contact me at harig-blaine@nlc.org to learn how NLC can support efforts in your community.