Three years ago, the head of the federal agency charged with caring for America’s veterans announced an ambitious goal: To end homelessness among veterans by 2015.
“President Obama and I are personally committed to ending homelessness among veterans,” Secretary for Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki said. "Those who have served this nation as veterans should never find themselves on the streets, living without care and without hope.”
Shinseki has said that the VA would meet their goal “by assisting every eligible homeless veteran willing to accept service.”
A big part of that process is helping homeless veterans access disability benefits payments. Veterans with disabilities, injuries or illness related to their service are eligible for compensation — often in the form of monthly checks — and other benefits through the VA. For some veterans, those payments can be the difference between sleeping under a roof and sleeping on the streets.
But filing for disability benefits is an onerous process in the best of cases. It often involves navigating an obstacle course of paperwork, medical appointments and follow-up as claims move through the VA’s immense bureaucracy. For homeless veterans, the process is exponentially more difficult: Without consistent transportation, telephone, computer access, address, mailbox — or even a reliable way to leave a message, it’s tough to manage the coordination and communication required to work through the claims process.
Filing is one thing. Then, once you file, you wait. The VA’s system for processing disability claims is badly strained: Nationally, veterans have to wait, on average, more than eight months to find out the results of their claims. In some places, like Phoenix, the wait can stretch to a year or more.
When home is a van
Hubert Moore served a tour in Vietnam. While he was there he was shot, hit with shrapnel — and exposed to Agent Orange, he later found out.
When he got home, he bounced between jobs — and cities — and wound up living in his van on the streets of Phoenix.
Moore didn’t file a disability claim with the VA – in fact, he says he doesn’t remember anyone ever mentioning anything about disability benefits. At least, not until two years ago, when he found himself sharing a beer with his friend James — also homeless, also a veteran.
“We were sitting there drinking a beer, and it was hot as hell,” Moore says. “We were talking, and he said, ‘Herb, how much money do you have in your pocket?’ I reached in my pocket, and I said, ‘Well, I got about 75 cents.’ And he said, ‘Well, I got about $2. But it could be $2,000, or maybe more, if we go down to the office and ask the lady at the desk to give us a form for veterans benefits.’
“I thought he was joshing me, because I hadn’t heard anyone talking about getting money from the government. They don’t come out and tell you about that. But I found out he was telling the truth.”
Moore says he went down to the VA to ask the lady at the desk to give him a form — and started the process of filing for benefits that day. But he was still living in his van, which compounded an already complicated process: There was no secure place to keep documents, he had no computer for researching information, there wasn’t a phone he could use to make calls to check in on his claim and, ironically, he didn’t even have a good way to get where he needed to go to file the paperwork.
“If you don’t have the gas to go down to the main office, that means you have to catch a bus,” Moore says. “If you don’t have money to catch a bus, then of course you have to walk. The office was 15 miles from where I was.”
That’s 15 miles in the oppressive Phoenix heat. Both ways.
Two years later, Moore isn’t living in his van anymore — he’s since moved to the Madison Street Veterans Association, a homeless shelter in downtown Phoenix — but he’s still waiting for his benefits. He last heard from the VA this fall — via an email saying he’d get a ruling “soon.”
The difference between a roof and the street
Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs realize that disability benefit payments can help lift veterans out of homelessness, or can prevent them from becoming homeless in the first place. So the agency prioritizes claims filed by homeless veterans as they move through the process. (And in a system with a nearly 800,000-claim backlog and monthslong waits nationwide, having a claim expedited is no small thing.)
Each of the 57 regional VA offices in the United States employs a homeless outreach coordinator, whose job it is to get the word out to veterans that they’re eligible for benefits, and to help them through the process.
Every VA regional office has one homeless outreach coordinator. But Phoenix has a lot of homeless veterans — and one of the most significant backlogs of disability claims in the country. The city’s homeless outreach coordinator, Anthony Irvy, is responsible for working with more than 1,500 homeless veterans. Irvy wasn’t available for an interview to talk about his role, but homeless advocates in the city say they wish there was more of him to go around.
“I heard he’s real good at getting the guys their disabilities,” Vietnam veteran Bill Gallow says. Gallow filed a disability claim a little more than a month ago for Agent Orange-related diabetes. (Type 2 diabetes is one of 14 medical conditions that the VA has linked to Agent Orange exposure.) But Gallo found the process confusing, and scheduled time to meet with Irvy.
“I need some help,” Gallow says. “Going in [to the VA] by myself just doesn’t work — I need someone on my side to push it forward, get it done right, so I can at least get something.”
The Coming Wave
For now, Madison Street Veterans Association serves mostly Vietnam veterans. But shelter program director Terry Araman is looking ahead and anticipating a new generation: the more than 1.5 million veterans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He worries that they will be at risk for falling into homelessness – and he stresses how important disability benefits will be for them, too.
“If we continue along the path we’re on right now, we’re just going to get more bogged down,” Araman says.
“he country is going to be flooded with veterans coming back from these two wars within the next few years. We’re already bogged down, already way behind. So if we don’t start gearing up now, we’re going to miss the boat again and it’s just going to get worse.”
In the meantime, 2013 — and, for that matter, 2015 — are getting closer by the day.
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