Bronx Non-Profits Come Together to Make Veterans the Focus of Their Efforts

For marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen returning home from combat and military service, the question remains the same: “Can I get an education, a job, a place to live?” Unfortunately, the answer is not always as simple as it should be. Helpful resources are often available, but navigating “the system” and transitioning to civilian life can be an unexpected struggle for veterans all across the country.

This spring the Bronx-based veterans’ advocacy group Devil Dog USA, Inc. 501 c-3 organized a watershed Veterans’ Town Hall meeting at Fordham University to promote awareness and understanding of the issues veterans from every generation face. Groups including National Association for Black Veterans (NABVETS), Association for Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), Easter Seals, Samaritan Village, the Jericho Project, National Action Network (NAN), the Semper Fi Fund, as well as veterans from all eras, representatives from the Veterans Administration, rental insurance guarantor, real estate agents, landlords, brokers, and local leaders, came together to share ideas, foster cooperation and identify useful solutions.

Key among the concerns for the participants is veterans’ homelessness and employment. Devil Dog USA, Inc. CEO and Founder Gonzalo Duran knows how it feels – because he’s lived it.

A proud Marine, Sergeant and decorated combat veteran, Gonzalo described his own difficulty transitioning from military to civilian life. While Duran was serving in Iraq, his father Vicente suffered a heart attack and spent the next two years bedridden before passing away in 2010. For a period of time in 2011, he was by turn’s homeless, living in a shelter and staying at home with his mother. Eventually, he broke through – using his military pay to get an apartment with assistance from non-profits and Veterans Affairs.

The event that really crystalized the homelessness issue for Gonzalo was when he encountered fellow Fordham student and Marine, Yegor Zubarev. His classmate was living in a homeless shelter nearby, and not receiving any assistance. For Gonzalo, this could not stand. On a Thursday, he wrote an article about the situation. On Friday, he knocked on doors. On Saturday, he found a nice apartment in a good area. On Sunday, Gonzalo helped Yegor move in. It turns out Zubarev was just one of an estimated 1,600 homeless veterans in the city.

One person who shares Gonzalo’s mission and believes strongly in his community-focused approach is Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the event’s Keynote Speaker. “The most effective organizations are the ones right there in the community,” North observed. “Everything you do stays in the community.”

Lt. Colonel North noted the serious disconnect between veterans and the rest of America, “When 16.5 million veterans returned home from World War II, they came back to a society that supported them 100 percent. The GI Bill provided generous education and housing assistance to the Greatest Generation. Every American over the age of 10 knew someone who was serving.

“Today, with an all-volunteer military, veterans still need a home, education, financial assistance, employment, and health care. Yet, there are gaping holes in the system. There are 30,000 vets in Queens alone – hundreds of thousands across the country. For the first time, more Vietnam veterans have killed themselves than died in Vietnam.

“We need to reconnect with those who protect,” North insisted. “The way we treat our veterans will determine the way and the level at which other people choose to serve. As capable as our armed forces are, cutting the military puts us at risk. Cutting veterans’ benefits puts us at risk.”

Panelists at the Fordham event made veterans the central focus of their efforts. Vietnam Veteran Stanley Scriven, speaking for Easter Seals, has seen that the transition from military to civilian culture can be challenging. “It’s not high school. In the military, everything is done for you. When you get out, the camaraderie and the sharing – it’s all gone. Now it’s all you.”

Easter Seals runs a program for veterans 55+ which include training and a stipend. Work paths include Maintenance, Kitchen Staff, and Computer Data Entry. The organization also runs a Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program (HVRP) and a Homeless Female Veterans with Families (HFVVWF) program for veterans using H5 funds.

Building trust and relationships was a common theme among the panelists.

“Look at career preparedness from the Veterans perspective,” remarked Cindy Saad of ALPFA. “Resources exist, but their needs to be someone who can explain the menu and recommend choices. Everyone needs to pitch in to get a career offer. Our approach includes candidate development, preparation, mentoring and especially getting to know the person so you can speak well of him or her to others.”

Saad also suggests that veterans continue to improve themselves personally and leverage the cultural and leadership skills that they developed while serving in the military.

“Just as there was indoctrination to be in the military, there needs to be indoctrination for corporate leadership,” Saad concluded. “There also has to be true partnership with corporate sponsors and community partners. We don’t just want your money. We want your involvement. We want you to have skin in the game – and lead by example.”

Jericho Village is another front-line Veterans Service Organization that provides veterans with job training and housing for five months, allowing them to save money for their own apartment rental.

Donnell Simon, a Desert Storm and Desert Shield Veteran who does outreach to at-risk veterans’ families says the critical question Samaritan Village helps veterans to answer is “How are you going to pay the rent when you are in real housing?” A navigator follows the veteran and helps them adjust in the community and gain an entry-level job. Employment and benefit specialists give assistance, and the group helps families connect with real-estate brokers.

“Upon return, a lot of veterans are concerned with college and working and don’t always take the time to find out what benefits are available through the VA,” Simon noted. “Others face challenges such as substance abuse or saving enough for housing. Our specialty is providing rapid housing assistance for 30-90 days, that can make a real difference.”

Keith Driscoll of the Jericho Project believes it’s important for veterans to have realistic expectations for employment. “What can you do? What do you want to do? Are you seeking a Wall Street job, a blue-collar job, and an assembly job? Our purpose is to find services that fit. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. That’s why our team includes employment specialists and job coaching experts.”

The Jericho Project provides seven supportive housing residences, for vets coming from the shelter system, serving 350-400 veterans. Two of these houses are in the Bronx.

From the Veterans Administration’s perspective, the mission is to work with everybody: “One Team. One Goal.”

Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) need to take the time to get to know the right people at the VA and federal agencies and build partnerships. One of the most important platforms where the VA and VSOs can collaborate is Veterans’ Information Fairs, which occur on site at VA facilities several times a year.

The Semper Fi Fund serves post-9/11 service members who are injured and critically ill, and their families. Since the fund was established in 2004, more than $87 million in grants have been distributed to 11,000 heroes and their families. Karen Hetherington described the host of services the Fund provides:

“The Fund delivers individual assistance with lifetime tracking, from medevac onward. This includes Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) services. Additional support includes: emergency rent assistance for veterans (paying the landlord within 24-48 hours), vets-for-vets mentoring program, job hunting and résumé writing, wardrobe assistance, inpatient care, adaptive vehicle grants, support for recreational activities.”

Together, the panel and audience members identified a number of questions and issues that need to be addressed going forward, including:

  • Helping non-profits gain a better understanding of how federal regulations can impact delivery of services and access to veterans who would benefit from their services.
  • Resolving conflicting definitions of homelessness at the federal and state levels;
  • Educating landlords about the nature and reliability of veterans’ income (Veterans may have a reliable income stream, but a poor credit score. Other times they find themselves competing for housing resources with other community organizations who serve welfare clients with housing vouchers);
  • Overcoming the challenges veterans have when they make a transition from state to state. Sometimes military records are not sent. It can be hard to get pay on time. The medical review process takes time;
  • Identifying and reaching female veterans and post 9/11 veterans who are in need of assistance;
  • Building deeper personal and working relationships with employers;
  • Electing public officials who understand the problem and can help direct funds where they deliver the greatest return;
  • Asking the media to be balanced, informed and responsible in its coverage of veterans’ issues.
  • Recognizing that veterans themselves have a responsibility to be proactive, to reach out, and to continually improve themselves and update their skill set; and,
  • Making sure that veterans know about the complete range of resources and opportunities and resources available to them.

Gonzalo Duran’s mentor Leroy Archibald, Commander Bronx Chapter 39 of NABVETS, concluded the panel discussion remarking, “Each of us has known and worked with these organizations. There is a level of trust and a powerful network. This is the first time these resources have all gathered in one place.”

For it’s part Devil Dog USA, Inc. is determined to be a catalyst for change and strengthen the connective tissue of the veterans’ support network.

The organization seeks to provide transitional housing for veterans to help them along a more direct path to self-sufficiency. The group provides referrals to a guarantor of insurance that helps veterans get a lease and provides resources so individuals can build their credit. It also assists veterans with tax preparation and provides school and career guidance and support.

Devil Dog Marketing Director Keith Rivera remarked that Devil Dog USA, Inc. would provide short-term rental assistance (six months). “Our job and our duty is to help our veteran clients to get everything done they need to get done during that critical time and make sure that the opportunity is not use as a ‘placeholder’. We strive to bring together a complete set of veterans’ resources in one place, and we plan for success every step of the way.”

One of the most tangible goals Devil Dog USA, Inc. has is to transform Vicente Duran’s family home into a transitional housing residence for approximately 20 veterans. Like anything worthwhile, this project has not been easy. The property has been under threat of foreclosure for some time, and the organization’s application for status as a 501c-3 non-profit was a casualty of the government shutdown in the summer of 2013. Devil Dog USA, Inc., has since received its certification from the I.R.S. and has completed a number of community workdays to prepare the property as part of a crowd-funded “Save a Home” project.

A reluctant but charismatic leader, Gonzalo Duran feels that he has been forced into this role by the current circumstances veterans are facing. He has put his education on hold to help others and see this project through. From time to time, he has called upon the resourcefulness, courage and fidelity that characterize the Corps. Friends and observers are amazed at what Devil Dog USA, Inc. has accomplished with such limited resources. These former “door kickers” are now opening doors and building bridges in the community in a much friendlier way.

When the local YMCA experienced a series of after-hour break-ins by youth, trespassing to use the swimming pool, Devil Dog USA, Inc. got creative and partnered with Bronx SCUBA instructor, Captain Michael E. Mashack (Gonzalo’s former instructor) to launch “March Midnight Madness” a late-night SCUBA-diving instruction program with veteran and civilian instructors. Community businesses pitched in to fill the tanks – problem solved.

Veterans will always share a special bond that the rest of us will never fully understand or appreciate. That camaraderie and trust is a vital part of Devil Dog programming. The group provides a whole range of activities that bring veterans together to network, have fun, share stories and sometimes operate outside of their comfort zone. Regular activities include golf, scuba diving, skydiving, mountain climbing, horseback riding, swimming, running, art, music, woodcraft and more.

Thanks to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the Devil Dog USA, Inc. team, word of mouth is spreading quickly and the group is gaining traction in the veteran’s community and visibility in the public eye including local online news outlet DNAinfo New York. CBS recently broadcast a segment on Gonzalo and the Save A Home project, and he is regularly featured on community television and radio.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, “The sad reality of humanity is that there will be another war. That’s why it’s vital to spread the word about what vets are experiencing, and to trust people like Gonzalo Duran and organizations like Devil Dog USA, Inc. They are right here in the community where our effort needs to be directed.”

Recent media coverage about the delays in delivering primary care in Veterans’ Hospitals has brought the issue of how we care for our veterans into sharp relief. Gonzalo Duran believes that while many pieces of the veterans services puzzle are in place, critical connections are missing, and no one has taken ownership of the responsibility for making sure that veterans are housed and fed. Well now we know, and ignorance will no longer be an acceptable excuse.

By Chad Hussey

Learn More:

Devil Dog USA, Inc. – www.devildgogusainc.org

Save A Home project – http://www.gofundme.com/devildogusainc-saveahome

Easter Seals – www.eastersealsny.org

ALPFA – www.alpfa.org

Samaritan Village – www.samaritanvillage.org

Jericho Project – www.jerichoproject.org

Veterans Administration – www.va.gov

Semper Fi Fund – www.semperfifund.org

Freedom Alliance – freedomalliance.org

National Action Network – nationalactionnetwork.net

Chad Hussey is a freelance business writer and rock-climbing instructor based in Connecticut.

Next Town Hall Meeting will be November 10th 2014

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