Jaimel Greene wanted more than the rough Brooklyn neighborhood of his childhood could offer. He joined the Navy after 9/11. When he got back five years later, he started college with the goal of becoming an addiction counselor. But a mix-up with expected GI Bill educational funding triggered a vicious cycle. Suddenly he faced a hefty tuition bill he thought his benefits would pay for.
“I had to leave school. That left me with a bill of over $6,000. My car got repossessed,” Greene remembers. “Everything just started crumbling and I went into a depression.”
He looked for help, but like many veterans, got stuck in maddening bureaucratic run-around, while debts piled up. Then he connected with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which has a new program for New York City vets.
Funded by an anti-poverty foundation, the effort reflects the reality that many veterans aren't from small-town America, like in old war movies. They enlisted to seek a way out of the inner city but are now returning home to the grinding challenges of urban life and a weak economy. Their struggles have prompted new thinking about how to make sure veterans thrive in their civilian lives.
IAVA’s Manhattan offices are filled with reminders of their clients. At a regular meeting, case workers discuss challenges facing the urban veteran in a room where wall clocks show the time in Baghdad and Kabul. The IAVA case workers guide veterans through a large and confusing web.
“A veteran shouldn’t have to come back from serving and then have to educate him or herself on the 40,000 organizations in the country in order to get service,” says Allison Chansky, who was at the meeting. “They should be able to come [to] one place.”
The program is among several now backed by the Robin Hood Foundation, a leading non-profit with strong Wall Street ties. It has been fighting poverty in New York for a quarter century, but its $13 million effort targeting veterans is something new. It saw the need for a focused approach as two wars brought waves of vets to the city.
“We had seen an uptick in the number of veterans relying on services that were core to Robin Hood,” explains Robin Hood managing director Eric Weingartner.
Robin Hood’s support for IAVA’s work ultimately helped Jaimel Greene find a second part-time job, mental health counseling and assistance to get his educational funding back on track. Greene is grateful.
“It was, I’d say, like a 100-pound weight off of you,” he says. “It was a big relief.”
That isn’t all of the load he’s carrying, so IAVA is still working with him and others. The goal is to ensure those who survived abroad make it through the urban battlefield back home.