CM Ulrich presents veteran Robinson Arana with a proclamation (photo: @eric_ulrich)
A year ago I wrote a column on issues the New York City Council Veterans Committee should consider holding hearings to address. It was an ambitious agenda, and many in the veterans community were still in a honeymoon phase with the newly structured committee and weren’t sure what to fully expect.
However, under the leadership of the chair, Council Member Eric Ulrich, the committee continued its serious and straightforward approach toward issues of importance to the city’s military veterans. This resulted in not only renewed optimism and increased participation from the community, it led to a number of bills signed into law and saw a city budget for the new 2016 fiscal year that contains an additional $2.9 million toward veteran services.
As we rapidly approach the Council committee’s first fall hearing this week, it’s time again to set a fall agenda. Suggestions, in no particular order:
Veterans Legal Task Force: With the creation of Veterans Courts across the country over the past decade, one of the major problems in the city has been the disparity of how veterans are treated in the criminal justice system depending on what borough they live in or where they happen to be arrested. This is a major issue, especially in Manhattan – the only borough that currently doesn’t have a Veterans Court.
Last February, the Veterans Committee, along with the Committee on Courts and Legal Services, held an oversight hearing on Veterans Treatment Courts. As a result, Council Members Ulrich and Rory Lancman proposed legislation calling for the creation of a Veterans Legal Task Force to study veterans’ access to legal services and resources within the city’s criminal justice system. That bill (Intro. 793) is scheduled to be the focus of the committee’s first hearing on Friday and is an excellent topic to start the new legislative session.
Mental Health: In May and June the committee held hearings that touched upon mental health issues. In both instances, Commissioner Loree Sutton, head of the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, highlighted MOVA’s partnership with New York City First Lady Chirlane McCray, who over the past several months has been meeting with city service providers, non-profit organizations, and advocates in preparation to unveil her “mental health roadmap” sometime this fall.
As part of those meetings, the First Lady visited local VA hospitals, met with veteran advocates in the arts space, and sat down with the wives of senior military officials during Fleet Week. The administration has not been forthcoming on what the roadmap may look like for veterans and the community awaits its release this fall. When the report is unveiled, the Council committee should consider holding a hearing with city agencies, non-profits, veteran service organizations, and mental health advocates to discuss how feasible the plan is and if there are any areas for veterans that can be improved upon.
Veteran Homelessness: During his January State of the City address, Mayor de Blasio promised to end veteran homelessness in New York City by the end of the year. This was an ambitious goal, but as of July the City appeared to be on track to reach it.
Unfortunately, a recent New York Daily News report states that it is now unlikely veteran homelessness in the city will be ended this year - but it should be acknowledged that huge gains have been made toward reaching “functional zero.” In 2013, there were 3,000 veterans in shelters and over 300 on the streets. Today, there are roughly 950 veterans in shelters and fewer than 20 on the streets. That is a precipitous drop by any measure.
The committee has not had a hearing on homeless veterans since November of 2011 and this would be an opportune time to hear from the administration regarding what steps it’s taking to get to functional zero; how it's working with the VA; and to solicit thoughts and ideas from non-profits, advocates, and the public.
Veteran Vendors: It’s been thirty-four years since the city capped the number of street-vending permits, creating a black market that allows permit holders, some whom don’t even reside in the city, to renew them every two years at regulated prices and then rent them out for much higher prices to vendors who then masquerade as independent contractors.
Recently, the City reduced the amounts on some fines, however, disputes between street vendors, BIDs, and brick-and-mortar businesses has made vending inefficient and sometimes dangerous. After years of complaining from all sides, Crain's New York Business reported that there is a move in the City Council to create legislation that will address these issues.
When this legislation is finally introduced (presumably this fall), military veterans who are vendors will also need to have their voices heard regarding how the legislation will affect them. Therefore, the committee should consider holding a joint hearing with the Consumer Affairs Committee to solicit input and feedback from veterans on this legislation.
Intro. 314: Last September Council Member Ulrich held a hearing on Intro. 314 - a bill that would change the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) into a separate department, outside of the mayor’s office but still under the mayor’s purview. This bill would expand the office's capabilities while also making it easier for Council members to obtain funding for local veteran providers in the boroughs directly through MOVA, instead of through other city agencies that are unfamiliar with these groups.
Currently, the legislation has enough votes to make it out of committee and then, in all likelihood, the full Council. However, there must first be compromise between the de Blasio administration and the Council as this bill would require many changes regarding oversight, budgeting, mission, and even place in the City Charter. Nevertheless, this is an important piece of legislation for the veterans community and a follow-up hearing and vote to finally move it out of committee should be held.
Lastly, the committee should consider follow-up hearings with the city Department of Small Business Services on its report recommendations and progress on a pilot program regarding city contracts for veteran-owned businesses; as well as a hearing on veterans and legal issues such as Family and Housing Courts.
Like last year, I am recommending a fairly hefty agenda and it won’t all happen this month. However, if Council Member Ulrich and committee members continue to approach veterans issues with the due diligence they’ve shown over the past year; the coming months will be as successful as the past year. I look forward to following and participating in the committee’s work.
Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veteran’s advocate in New York City for two decades. He is a member of the City’s Veterans Advisory Board and the founder of NY MetroVets.