POLITICS
07/21/2014 10:57 am ET

As The VA Flounders, Community Nonprofits Step In For Veterans

The custom-designed Gordon Mansfield housing complex at Soldier On, a nonprofit veteran center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The complex has 39 studio or one-bedroom units for veterans partly powered by rooftop solar collectors. Each unit has its own entrance, a porch or deck, and is wired for cable and internet.

Of the millions of veterans who come to the VA for help, Sam Bennett was an unusually difficult case.

He was born to a single mother of seven in a two-room shack a few miles down Route 16 from the state prison at Raiford, deep in Florida's interior scrubland. Dad was doing time at Raiford, 17 years. Mom — Dorothy Fields Bennett — worked two jobs while the kids walked to get water and battled roaches in the shack, and at night, rats in the dark outhouse.

At 13, Bennett began to steal liquor to blunt his hunger and humiliation. His life slid downhill from there.

Many years later, after a four-year stint in the Army and years of addiction, crime and homelessness, a desperate, 42-year-old Bennett turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help.

A VA psychologist told him he was suffering from childhood depression.

Before it was too late, Bennett's life was saved, but not by the VA. It was a community-based nonprofit organization that gave him the kind of personal attention, dignity and trust that a massive government bureaucracy like the VA never could.

The story of Sam Bennett, now 55, and Soldier On, the organization that enabled him to turn his life around, illuminates a trend that's grown quietly in recent years as the VA has struggled with scandal and the growing demands of veterans: the rise of the community non-profit.

Some 46,000 locally based organizations are serving veterans across the country, and in many cases doing it more effectively than the VA.

Using a mix of VA cash and other government grants, corporate gifts, local donations and often drafting volunteers, these groups are providing services to veterans and their families to get their lives back on track — from housing, job training and financial and marital counseling to addiction treatment, short-term loans, car repairs, even baby sitting.

The VA still plays a crucial role in veteran care. Nonprofits cannot duplicate the medical care it offers, its specialized brain injury work, the occupational therapy and other advanced care it provides amputees and severely wounded veterans. But community-based non-profit organizations are stepping up where the VA is falling short.

And this points to a potentially powerful way to reform the struggling agency, many veteran advocates say. Cut it down to size. Clean out its overstuffed layers of administrators and managers. Let it continue providing the direct medical care for which it receives high marks, as well as the GI Bill education programs, pensions and disability benefits.

But boost the generous funding the VA provides to the nonprofits, and let the nonprofits take over more of what they do best. In other words — the VA pays the bills, and the nonprofits do the work.

"There are just some things that government can't do, that independent organizations, working together locally, can do," said David W. Sutherland, a retired infantry officer who runs the Easter Seals Dixon Center in Cincinnati. It supports local initiatives to provide health, jobs and education support for veterans and their families.

"If we turned the VA into an insurance company, we'd be in good shape," growls Jack Downing, 71, a tough-talking New Englander who founded and runs Soldier On.

After all, it is in local communities like Pittsfield, a small city in western Massachusetts where Soldier On is based, that nonprofits can find veterans and figure out how best to help them — challenges that have frustrated the centralized VA for years.

Many of these veteran-oriented nonprofits have sprung up or expanded since 9/11 as people have felt a need in their communities to connect with veterans thronging home from the wars, and to fill the gaps the VA was leaving open.

Like any big government agency, the sprawling, $164 billion VA cherishes its ironclad rules and standardized, one-size-fits-all services. One result is that it reaches only about one-third of the nation's 21 million veterans. A veteran may not qualify for VA assistance because of a dishonorable discharge or may have not served long enough to earn benefits. The VA lacks the ability to track veterans after they leave the service. When it can find them, it is prohibited by law from forcing them to come in for health care.

A veteran unserved by the VA may simply live too far from one of its 152 medical centers, or may be one of those 57,000 veterans waiting three months or longer to see a doctor. They may distrust the government.

Or, like Sam Bennett, they may be a hard case.

Soldier On, the veterans' facility in Pittsfield that took on Sam Bennett.

Short and well-muscled with bright eyes and a broad face that often splits into a wide grin, Bennett wrestled his way through high school and enlisted in the Army, in what might have been an escape from the alcohol, drugs and petty crime of his neighborhood.

It wasn't an escape. The Army in the late 1970s was underfunded and demoralized after Vietnam, its ranks poisoned with racial animosity, drugs and crime. At some bases, officers were afraid to enter the enlisted barracks.

Bennett was sent to Germany with his tank unit, Charlie Company, 3rd of the 9th Cav, to help deter a Soviet invasion. He loved the military and did well, rising above private first class to Spec. 4. He loved tanks. He also loved the lifestyle, where reefer, heroin and mushrooms numbered among the temptations. His enlistment completed at 22, Bennett was discharged from the Army and came home with hepatitis from a dirty needle and a hunger for drugs.

Sam Bennett, now a case manager at Soldier On.

He worked intermittently at Raiford prison and did other odd jobs, spending what he earned on drugs and living among other addicts in abandoned housing. In 1989 he was convicted of strong-armed robbery and served 13 months in prison in Tallahassee. "I put some harm on people who didn't deserve it," he said. "I had a lot of resentment, a lot of denial — it's all somebody else's fault." The day he got out, they gave him a dress shirt, trousers, sneakers and $50. He went right out and bought beer, cigarettes and crack.

At one low point he showed up at his mother's house. Disgusted, she shooed him away.

In 2001, the VA psychologist who had diagnosed him with childhood depression sent Bennett to the homeless program at the Northampton VA Medical Center in Leeds, Massachusetts. The program was run under contract by Downing's organization, then operating as United Veterans of America. Downing got Bennett a bed at the shelter, hooked him up with VA medical care and enrolled him in the local Narcotics Anonymous, the global community-based organization with a 12-step addiction recovery program.

Eager to learn, hard-working and a natural, charismatic leader, Bennett did well, at first. Downing spotted Bennett's potential, appointing him manager of the shelter at $7.20 an hour. It was rocky. Bennett ran away, came back on his own and started over. Ran away again.

But here's where the personal attention of a small nonprofit made a critical difference. The VA, with its overloaded case managers and unyielding rules, might have lost Bennett at this point. Downing did not.

Working the phones, Downing located the runaway Bennett in Stafford, Virginia, and called, not to berate him or punish him, but to point out his senseless, self-destructive path. "Why are you lying down in the middle of the road waiting to be run over by a truck?" Bennett remembers Downing barking at him on the phone. With that, Downing flew one of his residents down to Virginia to bring Bennett home to Pittsfield.

"I finally admitted I was struggling," Bennett said. "That was 2006 and I've been clean ever since." He enrolled in school and in 2008, after nine months of work, earned his state certificate as an alcohol and drug counselor. He is employed at Soldier On as a case manager, responsible for overseeing the addiction treatment and physical, mental, spiritual and financial health of a handful of Soldier On residents.

And in a huge step for a recovering addict, he's earned the right to oversee the pharmacy at Solder On, where residents come each day to get their meds.

Bennett's job as a case manager is a big one, considering how much Soldier On has expanded. Currently, it houses 165 male veterans in a short-term emergency shelter, on the grounds of the Northampton VA Medical Center. Downing recently opened a 10-bed shelter there for women veterans — kept strictly separate from male facilities because almost all the women are traumatized by previous sexual assaults.

In Pittsfield, 71 Soldier On residents live in rooms of three, five or six men in short-term "transitional" housing in a former nursing home, preparing for more independent living, either on their own or in the model $6.9 million permanent housing complex that Downing opened here four years ago.

The custom-designed Gordon Mansfield complex, named for a wounded Vietnam veteran and veteran advocate, has 39 unique studio or one-bedroom units partly powered by rooftop solar collectors. Each unit has its own entrance, a porch or deck, and is wired for cable and internet.

Sam Bennett's home is technically a studio, although it boasts separate bedroom, living room and kitchen areas. It's nautically shipshape, fanatically neat as only a man who's lived in barracks, prison and on the streets can make it. Pillows arranged at precise angles on a new sofa; kitchen spotless, dishes polished and placed in ranks in the cupboard. Framed family photos set squarely on soft beige walls — there's Dorothy Fields Bennett, a great-grandmother now at 74, smiling into the camera.

In line with Downing's determination to treat the veterans well, he hired a renowned local chef to provide high-class, non-institutional meals: a recent dinner featured roast garlic chicken and local vegetables.

Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list of roughly a dozen for the Mansfield cooperative.

Residents each buy a $2,500 share, owning 1/39th of the complex. If a formerly homeless vet can't afford it, he'll pay what he can and the rest will be made up by grants from local banks. Residents' monthly payments, averaging around $580, are subsidized if needed by a federal grant.

Construction jobs are one of the many employment opportunities available to veterans at Soldier On.

But they can earn cash toward their monthly payment by working shifts in the kitchen, on cleaning and maintenance crews, or manning the 24/7 command post. They are paid to run construction and trucking outfits and a food pantry that's available for veterans and local families. They operate a transportation network with a dozen vans and buses that ferry veterans to jobs, school and health care appointments, a service they’re extending to local civilians as well. Soldier On employs a full-time psychologist, a part-time psychiatrist and addiction specialists, and hires former addicts like Bennett as case managers and support staff, paying between $10 an hour and $52,000 a year.

The center also encourages veterans to participate in community service, an important part of helping restore their sense of dignity and self-worth. In winter, for instance, Soldier On's residents open a shelter for homeless civilians with hot food, showers, beds and a clothing exchange. Veterans prepare and serve the food, clean up, wash the sheets.

It sounds ideal, but given Soldier On's population of former military, ex-homeless addicts, there are inevitable problems. Squabbles sometimes break out in the transitional housing unit over living space in the communal rooms. "A couple of guys have gone on binges," says Zeno Simmons, 59, an Army veteran and recovering addict who lives in the Gordon Mansfield complex. "Boredom is a big factor in going back out."

These and other problems are handled by case managers and a board of a dozen residents and staff, which operates on the principle that "failure and weakness must be acceptable here every day,” Downing says.

In a recent meeting, they discussed how to handle a veteran bothering his roommates with night terrors, and another "moving in and out of psychosis" (keep a closer eye on each man, they decided). The committee can order a miscreant to get drug testing, meet with a therapist or impose a short-term restriction to the grounds — no trips into town.

"They don't throw you out," said Simmons. "It's like, 'How can we help you get back on it?'"

Downing puts it this way: "The VA’s idea is the veteran has to come in to see them, that it's not their job to go find the veteran. And when the guy gets there, they jam a program down his throat.

"There's a big difference between jamming programs down peoples' throats, and creating an atmosphere of trust and respect where you can find your own solutions," he said. “So we use first names here, eliminate offices for staff — eliminate the hierarchy, so that people with low self-esteem feel included."

Downing plans to build new housing cooperatives for veterans in Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Florida.

Jack Downing, the founder of Soldier On.

Who pays for all this?

Mostly the federal government. And Downing, like the flinty-eyed Yankee trader of myth, is a master at coaxing what he needs from Washington and figuring out how to use it creatively.

Of its $15.3 million budget this year, Soldier On gets $13.5 million in various VA grants for housing and support of homeless veterans and for counseling and other services. It receives $350,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor, and the rest from the Massachusetts Department of Veteran Services, local government, housing payments from its residents, and other grants and donations.

Much of the federal money comes through the VA's innovative Supportive Services for Veterans and Families program, which this year will give some $900 million in grants to 450 community nonprofits to provide housing for veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The program, begun in 2011, is the VA's nod to local nonprofits: the VA provides the money, and all the work of finding and housing homeless veterans is done by community organizations.

Once veterans are in stable housing, these grants enable communities to embrace them with medical and mental health services, financial counseling, job placement and other social services, to ensure that they don't end up back on the street.

VA officials acknowledge that community nonprofits do a good job with their money. "No question, Soldier On is efficient," said John Kuhn, a senior official who oversees the SSVF grants.

Without community nonprofits, "we don't end homelessness among vets," said Vince Kane, director of the VA's National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans

Increasingly, though, private money is flowing to community nonprofits as well. Walmart, Home Depot and Wells Fargo last year provided some $7.5 million in grants to 600 veterans organizations, and Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz recently made available $30 million in grants to community organizations helping veterans transition to civilian life.

National organizations such as Give An Hour provide a range of free, local psychological counseling by more than 7,000 professionals who volunteer their time for veterans in all 50 states.

But it's largely the VA's money that allows Downing to try creative ways to reach veterans.

Furious that the VA expects veterans come to its facilities rather than going out to find them, he set up a phone line — 1-866-406-8449 — manned by Soldier On residents. Any veteran who calls will get a call back within 15 minutes. If the caller is outside Soldier On's coverage area (Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Mississippi), he’ll be referred to a community nonprofit close by.

Within those five states, a Soldier On specialist will show up at the caller's home within 24 hours. To do that, Downing has worked out a deal with a local Toyota dealer for a $1.5 million line of credit, which he used to put 75 Soldier On representatives on the road in RAV4 SUVs, enabling them to meet with needy veterans in person.

"We don't work by phone, so it's long days — last year I did 58,000 miles on the road," said one specialist, who asked not to be named for personal reasons. He said if Soldier On can't help the veteran, he has a list of 230 other community nonprofits nearby he can recommend.

Of course, most veteran-oriented nonprofits don't have the resources or scope of Soldier On. Some act as one-stop referral services, directing veterans to local businesses for jobs, or finding them mental health and family counseling from organizations like Give An Hour. Others offer just a few services.

Friendship Place, a nonprofit that serves the relatively affluent Washington, D.C., metro area, focuses on veterans who are homeless or at risk of losing their homes. It uses a $2 million SSVF grant to provide housing to roughly 400 veterans for up to three months.

One was Latoya Lee, who deployed to Iraq in 2003 with the District of Columbia Army National Guard, and who earlier this year found herself on the verge of losing her home.

Lee, 31, took maternity leave last December from her job as a contract administrator at the State Department, with maternity pay of $128 a week. She couldn't quite make ends meet. By February, she was out of money and her $1,100 rent was due. She was already barely scraping by to feed her three-year-old daughter and newborn. Friendship Place stepped in with cash to pay her rent and provided financial counseling to help stabilize her future.

Lee is now back at work and no longer needs the $1,200 a month she received from Friendship Place for two critical months. She's making her car payments and putting money aside in savings. She says she's learned to live just below her income.

"It's a fairly helpless feeling" to be on the verge of living on the street, she said. "I've always been financially independent. Thank God for the help we got."

Despite such good work, veteran-oriented nonprofits have grown haphazardly, with some established nonprofits adding veterans services and others springing up to fill an immediate local need. Not surprisingly, they vary widely in expertise and skill — and often aren't coordinated with other nonprofits.

That's starting to change. The VA made an attempt last year to bring together nonprofits, local governments and businesses in many cities to collaborate on mental health services, but the effort left behind no lasting structure. As a result, nonprofits are taking the lead.

In Cincinnati, for instance, the Easter Seal Dixon Center last year convened several large community meetings, bringing together some 200 activists from nonprofits, banks and other businesses and schools and connecting them with VA representatives and others to identify and fill gaps in services and funding. One immediate outcome: a call-in center that refers veterans to the appropriate local resource for help.

Similar organizing is taking place in New York City and Pittsburgh, where the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University is helping to build networks of dozens of nonprofits, equipping schools and businesses to deal professionally with local veterans. IVMF also trains nonprofit staffers on how to seek and manage grants.

In past years, some nonprofits struggled to get federal funding, said James D. McDonough, IVMF managing director for community engagement and innovation. "There were crappy applications based on crappy ideas. Failed attempts. I saw we could play a role in teaching other communities to be attractive to the VA."

After several years of work, he said, "we have a community of practice." If one nonprofit is floundering, McDonough said he can draw on expertise from another nonprofit to help.

"It's taken the VA a long time to recognize that it doesn't own all the battlespace out there where veterans and their families are," said McDonough, a retired Army colonel. "I'm encouraged that the VA has turned to the community and said, 'Help us.' I give them credit that they realize they're not getting there on their own."

All photos courtesy of Soldier On.

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