Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1880 Tue, 17 Oct 2017 15:17:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Stakeholders Discuss Next Steps in Eliminating Homelessness Among Military Veterans http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6849:stakeholders-discuss-next-steps-in-eliminating-homelessness-among-military-veterans http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6849:stakeholders-discuss-next-steps-in-eliminating-homelessness-among-military-veterans veterans homelessness panel

The panel (photo: Felipe De La Hoz/Gotham Gazette)


A forum held Thursday night at the New York City Bar Association featured advocates and officials at the city and federal levels to discuss the insidious problem of homelessness among military veterans. The city’s newly created Department of Veterans Services estimates that New York City is home to over 210,000 veterans.

If the city’s homelessness crisis is already complicated, former service members’ housing challenges have unique dimensions of both complexity and potential solutions, some of which the panelists attempted to unpack.

A theme throughout was the need for individualized attention to each veteran, as each case may require any of a patchwork of state and federal grants or programs depending on its specific circumstances. “Any one of these strategies alone wouldn’t have worked,” said Nicole Branca, Assistant Commissioner at the Department of Veterans Services (DVS).

She was referring to the mixed use of programs like the federal Department of Veterans Affairs-subsidized transitional housing at Borden Avenue in Queens; the V.A. Supportive Housing (VASH) program, which is run with the federal department of Housing and Urban Development; and the city’s own veteran peer coordinators, fellow veterans who help at-risk veterans find and retain housing.

One goal of DVS, which was established just last year when the city expanded the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs into a full-blown city agency, is to make sure that veterans are helped effectively at every step, which includes both preventing homelessness and addressing it quickly when it does occur. Ultimately, the agency wants to reach what it calls “functional zero,” or no more than 300 veterans facing homelessness at any one time, and none chronically so.

The agency has made significant progress towards this goal; by the end of last year, the agency estimated that the number of homeless veterans stood at just under 560, a 90% reduction from the estimated 4,677 in 2011. At the end of 2015, the city was recognized by the federal departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, and the Interagency Council on Homelessness for ending “chronic veteran homelessness,” a narrow designation which applies to disabled veterans who have been homeless for at least a year, or experience four episodes of homelessness in three years.

According to Daniel Farrell, a senior vice president at supportive housing non-profit HELP USA, “our work should be around shelters, before and after the shelter.” This partly involves simply making veterans aware of the services available to them.

Branca also said that the city is exploring ways to extend legal services to veterans after moderator Peter Kempner, director of the Veterans Project at Legal Services NYC, brought up broader recent efforts to provide tenants facing eviction with free legal aid, worrying that “the most disabled vets are going to get cut out of that.”

An obstacle to aiding homeless veterans in New York is the ever-pertinent problem of housing availability. “We could have all the subsidies in the world, but what we need is the units,” said Branca. New York City has a miniscule vacancy rate, scarce available affordable housing with rent caps, known as rent-stabilized housing, and about 60,000 people living in shelters.

Farrell referred to his organization’s operations in Las Vegas, where “we will house [veterans] that same day. No credit? Doesn’t matter. Here, you can have perfect credit, even make some money, have no history of homelessness, and we will not house you that day, or even that week.”

Kristen Rouse, a U.S. Army veteran and director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, highlighted the fact that it isn’t only the lack of housing stock itself but landlords’ discomfort with veterans and their support structures that led to shortage. “We hear about landlords who don’t accept G.I. bill benefits, or disability benefits,” she said. In response, her group is pushing a bill in the City Council, sponsored by Brooklyn Council Member Jumaane Williams, who chairs the housing committee, that would include veterans as a protected category in the city’s Human Rights Law.

“Discrimination is illegal under federal law, but who are they going to call?... If you can call a 212 area number, or call 311, it’s a whole lot easier to address,” Rouse told Gotham Gazette. In addition, she is supporting a bill sponsored by Staten Island Council Member Steven Matteo, the Republican minority leader, that would extend property tax exemption for veterans to cover school property taxes. “School taxes have gone up 60% since 2003. Disability and social security? They’re not going up,” said Rouse.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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Stakeholders Discuss Next Steps in Eliminating Homelessness Among Military Veterans Sun, 02 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Budget Hearing Shows Veterans Department Settling into Agency Status http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6793:budget-hearing-shows-veterans-department-settling-into-agency-status http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6793:budget-hearing-shows-veterans-department-settling-into-agency-status ulrich flags

Council Member Ulrich (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council Committee on Veterans held a preliminary budget hearing Monday, hearing testimony from the Department of Veterans Services and advocates for military veterans in New York City.

Council members, led by committee Chair Eric Ulrich, heard from Loree Sutton, the commissioner of the Department of Veterans Services, and others in assessing the department’s budgetary needs for the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Formerly the Mayor’s Office of Veteran’s Affairs, DVS was established as a stand-alone agency in 2015 to provide more support for the city’s military veteran community. This includes more staff and a bigger budget, as well as more oversight from the Council.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $84.67 billion preliminary budget, unveiled January 24, surprised some veterans advocates with its $318,000 funding decrease for DVS from the current fiscal year’s adopted budget. As previously reported by Gotham Gazette, this proposal was initially met with outrage from members of the Council’s veterans committee and other elected officials, who joined veterans advocates to protest the proposed reduction outside City Hall last month.

A few days later, the mayor’s office announced it was adding money to the DVS budget for fiscal 2018 to keep one position that had been federally funded and was not slated to be kept and for other services.

Thus, outrage was largely absent from Monday’s hearing. Despite DVS receiving $3.84 million in the adopted budget for the current fiscal year, Commissioner Sutton and Council Member Ulrich seemed at peace with the $3.63 million (plus the to-be-seen additions) in proposed funding for DVS in fiscal year 2018. The city's November budget modification had the DVS budget at $3.95 million, but projected $3.63 million for the next fiscal year, and that is what de Blasio wound up budgeting. State and federal funding may also play a role in the next adopted DVS budget, though.

In her testimony, Sutton framed the decrease as a natural reduction for a second-year agency. Referring to DVS as “truly a ‘start-up’ entity,” Sutton explained that the budget decrease is due to one-time costs associated with forming a new agency that were included for the current year and are unnecessary next year. “Part of the inaugural agency budget was assigned to staffing, as well as certain non-recurring start-up costs such as the purchase of computers, office equipment, supplies, and furniture.”

Following Sutton’s testimony, Ulrich praised Sutton for keeping operational costs down. “Commissioner Sutton is probably one of the few agency heads who doesn’t come to the City Council saying ‘we need more money,’ so I’m very impressed with her level of austerity - she’s doing so much with the limited resources she has. If she needed more money I’m sure she would ask for it and the Council would be obliged to give it to [DVS].”

Sutton’s testimony also provided an overview of DVS operations. She outlined the progress made on housing, health services, and employment programs for the city’s 210,000 military veterans. According to Sutton, DVS “led the nation in its response to homelessness by connecting 1,600 homeless veterans with permanent, affordable housing this past year.” Sutton also reported that, in an effort to increase accessibility, DVS is establishing satellite offices in all five boroughs “to serve as a direct link between the community in each borough and DVS.”

A DVS spokesperson, Alexis Wichowski, had previously told Gotham Gazette that the agency had hired 33 of its 35-person budgeted staff. “We are almost at full capacity, that’s a huge milestone,” she said. “Getting people on board and getting them trained has been the focus for the last few months.”

Though neither Sutton nor Ulrich called the mayor’s preliminary budget lacking in DVS funding, that position was not unanimous Monday. The committee also heard from the NYC Veterans Alliance, represented by Kristen Rouse, who testified to the need for an increase in DVS funding, arguing that her organization is still overwhelmed with the number of requests it receives from veterans and their families.

“I would love for a day when we don’t get phone calls and emails from distressed people saying ‘we need help,’” Rouse said, before officially calling on the administration to increase DVS funding. “DVS was created because of the enormity of the need and the urgency of helping veterans and their families in New York City...Funding must go up, not be reduced,” Rouse told the committee.

Though Ulrich could not commit to securing such an increase in the final budget - the deadline for which is June 30 - he did conclude the hearing by remarking that DVS represents a vast improvement to the city’s former veteran care and policy-making process. It was a push by Ulrich and groundswell in the Council that led to the creation of the department over the initial objections of de Blasio. “Prior to DVS...The budget [for veterans affairs] was whatever the Mayor wanted it to be and the Council really had no formal role it that process...I think it was incredibly important that people feel a sense of accountability. Now we have that and we’re very grateful for that.”

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by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with additional information.

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Budget Hearing Shows Veterans Department Settling into Agency Status Mon, 06 Mar 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Long-Awaited, City's New Approach to Veterans Services Moves Ahead http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6613:long-awaited-city-s-new-approach-to-veterans-services-moves-ahead http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6613:long-awaited-city-s-new-approach-to-veterans-services-moves-ahead sutton buery veterans city hall

Commissioner Sutton, left, at a City Hall ceremony (photo: @RichardBuery)


With Veterans Day approaching, veterans advocates in New York say they want to see the long-term vision of the newly created city Department of Veterans’ Services and how its Commissioner plans to tackle the most significant, persistent issues affecting the city’s military veterans.

More than 210,000 veterans live in New York City, making it one of the largest veteran populations in the nation, more so than some entire states. The administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, has committed additional resources and funding to address veterans’ concerns and challenges. The City Council has been actively pursuing veteran-friendly policy, including the legislation that elevated the Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs into the new Department of Veterans’ Services (after initial objections from de Blasio).

The Department of Veterans’ Services launched in April and has been operating with its expanded budget since the July start of the new fiscal year, boosting its staff and ramping up operations. The department is well on its way to full deployment in the next few months, said Commissioner Loree Sutton in an interview with Gotham Gazette at the agency’s main office at One Center Street, across from City Hall.

Sutton laid out her priorities and the “non-negotiable core services” that the department is focused on: housing and support services, an integrative healthcare program, and the E3 initiative (education, employment and entrepreneurship). “For the first time, we’ll finally have the capacity to not only establish a citywide presence but be able to engage in these three lines of action,” she said.

The department now has 24 employees, up from four in June of 2015, and will add another ten by the start of 2017. With an eye towards having a presence in all five boroughs, it now has a satellite office in Queens and will set up offices in all the boroughs within the next three months. “We have been very dedicated to the process of designing a new agency,” said Sutton, “And really taking the time that we needed not just to fill slots but really build a team. We’re also creating a culture, a culture that honors the aspirations and the dreams of so many veterans here in New York City from years and years.”

The department’s priorities align with what veteran advocates have long demanded, and they praise Sutton’s leadership for it. Recognizing that the department is young, advocates do say they would like to see a clear articulation of those priorities through outreach to the veteran community. “It takes time to build out so of course some of the veterans in the outer boroughs are wondering, ‘Where is it?’, but it’s growing,” said Joe Bello, a Navy veteran and member of the city’s Veterans Advisory Board, shortly after a recent hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Veterans.

“There needs to be something about what the city is actually offering vets,” he added, saying the department should consider creating a resource guide to its services in order to reach out to veterans and their families.

Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group, said the new department needs to be “responsive” to veterans’ needs. “They have to not only build the plan and execute the plan, they have to build trust in the community,” she said. “This is a community that has been underserved for a very long time and so they have to be responsive, they have to build that word-of-mouth trust.”

Rouse acknowledges, as a former city employee, that government can work slowly, but she’s encouraged by the staff the Sutton has hired, many of whom are veterans themselves. “It’s going to take some weeks and months for them to really gel as a team and to craft a plan that says, ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’” Rouse said. She stressed that the department should not lose focus, however, of issues that go ignored, like affordable housing for student veterans and discrimination faced by veterans.

“There are so many other different programs that need to be fostered,” she said, “to promote community, promote good quality of living, a sense of purpose for veterans in New York City so ultimately we’re a city that attracts veterans in the same way we attract artists, entrepreneurs.”

Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general, explained that the department is already doing much along these lines through coordination with different city agencies and setting up a network of local service providers under its VetConnect NYC initiative, which will roll out next year. “The number one challenge that veterans and their families point to is difficulty navigating,” she said, “to find the right services, to ensure that they’re quality services, to make sure they qualify for them, that the services are even available. That’s what this network really is designed to do.”

After the October 28 City Council veterans committee hearing, Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Queens Republican who chairs the committee, told Gotham Gazette he was optimistic about the new department’s execution, but hasn’t yet seen a long-term plan for veterans from the de Blasio administration.

“I don’t think it’s even on their radar right now,” he said. He did praise the city for ending chronic veteran homelessness and emphasized the need for connecting veterans with permanent affordable housing. But Ulrich said one area where the city is failing is in providing adequate employment for veterans, “and good paying jobs, not low paying menial jobs, but jobs that reflect their skills and abilities and their talents and the things that they’ve learned in the military,” he said.

What’s also important to consider, according to Ulrich, is the roughly 20,000 future veterans, soldiers currently in active service who will return to the city in the next five years. “I think the temptation is, on the part of the New York City government, to just supply a band-aid sometimes and treat how things are now, but we really have to come up with a long-term solution,” he said, “to make New York City a more veteran-friendly city.”

As Sutton tells it, that long-term vision is coming together, efforts that will be highlighted this week leading up to Friday’s Veterans Day and its annual parade. “We’re in the very early stages of what will absolutely continue to be a full-court press to improve the lives of our veterans and their families,” she said. “This is what I view as an essential municipal investment.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Long-Awaited, City's New Approach to Veterans Services Moves Ahead Sun, 06 Nov 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Hold First Budget Hearing for New Veterans' Services Department http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6346:council-to-hold-first-budget-hearing-for-new-veterans-services-department http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6346:council-to-hold-first-budget-hearing-for-new-veterans-services-department city hall veterans flags

Mayor de Blasio with Commissioner Sutton (in blue) (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


On Friday, the New York City Council will hold the first-ever budget hearing for the newly created Department of Veterans’ Services.

The Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs is transitioning into the Department of Veterans’ Services, a standalone department with a distinct agency budget and providing expanded services for the city’s 225,000 military veterans. The department became official in April and will now proceed to rollout over the next year, increasing staff from a mere half-dozen to more than 30 full-time employees.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s executive budget allocates $3.84 million to the Department of Veterans’ Services, about twice as much as MOVA’s budget for the current fiscal year. Commissioner Loree Sutton has already indicated what the agency’s direction will be. Speaking at an event at LaGuardia Community College on May 2, she laid out her top strategic priorities: ending veteran homelessness; implementing elements of the city’s ThriveNYC mental health program; and promoting education, employment and entrepreneurship for veterans.

The department has already taken a few steps in implementing these goals. To fight veteran homelessness, it has hired five peer-to-peer coordinators to undertake outreach to homeless veterans, particularly the “hidden population,” Sutton said, which includes student veterans who have difficulties accessing affordable housing. The city currently has about 432 veterans in the homeless shelter system, down from more than 3,500 six or seven years ago. Last year, the federal government certified the city as having ended chronic veteran homelessness, meaning homeless veterans who remain. The department will also appoint two assistant commissioners, one to implement Thrive NYC with an eight-member team and another to connect veterans with educational and economic opportunities.

Sutton stressed that the department is rolling out in phases. “Just because the mayor signed the legislation establishing the Department of Veteran Services last December doesn’t mean that it’s a light switch,” she said at the event. “You don’t go from five folks to 34 folks overnight.”

Using rudimentary military terminology, she explained the process. Until July 1, the department will be in the “transitional planning and budget” phase. With the July start of the new fiscal year, the department will enter Phase II, IOC or initial operating capacity. That phase will go through the entire fiscal year. “We will ramp up to that full 33-34 positions and by July of 2017 we’ll be at FOC - full operating capacity,” Sutton said.

“It’s exciting but we’re not going to move out in front of ourselves,” Sutton added. “We know that it’s our privilege to not just fill slots but rather to build a team, to form a family, to create a culture that can best serve the veterans and families of all five boroughs.”

After the release of the preliminary budget, the department was initially slated for a budget hearing which was later cancelled. For veterans advocates, it would’ve been a chance to hear the administration’s plan to set up its new agency and identify its priorities for veteran services. Tomorrow, advocates and the Council will get those answers.

“I’m excited to hear from the new commissioner about what her long-term vision is for the department,” Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, “how the Council can be an effective partner in assisting the DVS in realizing this vision, and what the main priorities and goals are in the coming fiscal year.”

Mark-Viverito will attend Friday’s hearing, slated for 1 p.m. at City Hall, and deliver brief opening remarks. According to her office, the speaker will highlight the need for expanded services for the city’s veterans - the reason that the Council pushed for a new department outside the mayor's office - citing persistent challenges of mental illness, substance abuse, hunger, and unemployment.

Kristen Rouse, an Army veteran and president and founding director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group, has many expectations of the “ambitious programs” that DVS has on the horizon and hopes to get the budget details on Friday. Rouse’s priorities, which converge largely with Sutton’s outline, include the department’s approach to communications with veterans, implementation of veteran-specific initiatives in ThriveNYC, support for homeless veterans, placement of veteran outreach counselors in every borough, improved support for veteran employees in city agencies, and job placement assistance for veterans.

“I'm also hoping to see a solid commitment of city tax-levy dollars in addition to the federal and state funding to show that the city is truly buying in on veteran programs and not simply going after external funds, or even private or philanthropic funds,” Rouse said.

Navy veteran Joe Bello, a member of the city’s Veterans Advisory Board and founder of NY MetroVets, which seeks to keep veterans informed, is pleased with the level of funding DVS will receive. “It shows that the mayor is committed to building up the department,” he said. “I’m looking forward to hearing from Commissioner Sutton about what kinds of resources and services they’ll provide.”

He did have minor concerns, however, about both the budget and Friday’s hearing. He said a vital reason that veterans advocates pushed for the new department was so that the city could ensure streamlined disbursement of funds to local nonprofit organizations that serve veterans. Those funds, he said, usually go through specific city agencies and face delays.

“When we saw the positions they’d put forth, I didn’t see any person to handle the money for nonprofits. I’m hopeful Council Member [Eric] Ulrich will ask about that,” Bello added, referring to the chair of the Council’s veterans affairs committee, Eric Ulrich. Ulrich, Mark-Viverito, and Council Member Paul Vallone were key driving forces behind the creation of the new department, which Mayor de Blasio had initially rejected.

Ulrich and Council finance committee Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland will lead Friday’s hearing. Ulrich’s office did not return requests for comment ahead of the hearing.

Bello also said he was disappointed that the public would not be able to testify at the hearing, as is the case with all executive budget hearings. “For the first hearing ever, they should’ve given some consideration to that,” he said. “Otherwise I’m excited.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council to Hold First Budget Hearing for New Veterans' Services Department Thu, 19 May 2016 04:00:00 +0000