Gotham Gazette Thu, 22 Apr 2021 23:29:26 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Contrasting Herself with Former Boss Bill de Blasio, Loree Sutton Runs to be ‘Quality of Life’ Mayor fleet week brigen

Former veterans commissioner Loree Sutton (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Loree Sutton knows Mayor Bill de Blasio well, having been hired by him as commissioner of the New York City Department of Veterans’ Services, and she’s now running to succeed him on a platform of bringing a very different leadership style atop city government.

“I saw things to continue to deteriorate in our city, the quality of life and all that we see around us in the city, I kept looking for who is the common-sense candidate, the passionate pragmatist, the person that is going to be able to draw energy and ideas and insights from both sides of the political spectrum and forge common-sense solutions going forward,” Sutton explained about her decision to run for mayor during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast. “I didn’t see it. I saw politics as fear.  I saw career politicians who were rushing for the far left. I saw industry, real estate, being demonized. We are so much better than this.”

A 30-year veteran who retired as a Brigadier General and top Army psychiatrist, Sutton was de Blasio’s first veterans affairs commissioner and announced her plan to run for mayor in the 2021 race soon after leaving the administration last year. Sutton plans to compete in the June 2021 Democratic primary as a moderate alternative to candidates she believes are mostly running too far to the left and on a platform of consensus-building leadership, with a focus on delivering city services as “the quality-of-life” mayor, as she put it on the podcast.

“New Yorkers are hungry for a different kind of leader and a different kind of leadership and that’s what I bring,” she said.

Though Sutton had little background in or ties to New York City before moving here just before de Blasio was first elected mayor in 2013, she believes her work in city government, her military service, and her ability to build relationships will help her compete with several expected candidates who currently hold elected office or worked in city and federal government for many years. Those likely or possible Democratic competitors include Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and former Bloomberg and Obama aide Shaun Donovan. Nonprofit executive Dianne Morales is also seeking the nomination, and others may jump into the race.

Sutton has been critical of de Blasio’s leadership, including his struggles to forge strong working relationships with Governor Andrew Cuomo and others. She cited the “Amazon debacle” and pointed to the departure of Andy Byford from the MTA, and sounded the alarm about what she sees as a deteriorating sense of law and order on city streets.

“So much boils down to relationships,” she said when asked to explain what she sees as deteriorating in the city under de Blasio. “We’ve seen the fractured relationship between the mayor and the governor which hasn’t served us well. The one project they collaborated on over these last few years was the Amazon debacle. We saw how that went, political malpractice at all levels.”

“I’m a general officer, I’m a proven leader -- I know how to get stuff done,” she said. “I’m a psychiatrist; relationships matter to me. I want to bring our city together and relationships are the key to that success. We can form the kinds of partnerships and restore trust, credibility, and pride to our city.”

She wants what she describes as an “L-train solutions” in all areas of policy, referring to Cuomo’s effort to overrule long-established plans for something seen as less disruptive to commuters by bringing in outside experts for a fresh perspective and thinking outside the box. She cited both the L-train repairs and the 14th Street busway as good examples where creative solutions have been sought and found.

“When I first moved here to New York, I heard about this L-train looming disaster and then, lo and behold, when the governor brought in some engineers that looked at this, they said ‘we don’t have to close the whole train down, we can reimagine this and do things a different way,’” she explained.

One of Sutton’s main areas of focus in her campaign is mental health care, and fixing a system that she and other critics believe de Blasio has designed poorly in attempts, spearheaded by First Lady Chirlane McCray, to take on the issue.

“You’ve gotta go where the seriously mentally ill are,” Sutton said. “They tend to be in our jails, in our shelters, in our hospitals and emergency rooms. We have to have community resources whether it be secure diversion programs, that seriously mentally ill who are arrested that they can enroll in those programs on a voluntary or involuntary programs up to one to two years.”

She emphasized the need for a system-level approach, that there’s no “one size fits all” answer to mental health programming in the city, and did say some kind words about the de Blasio/McCray ThriveNYC program. Sutton helped run some mental health programming through the Department of Veterans’ Services, saying, “It depends upon us working across the entire spectrum of mental health issues, which I think the Thrive program was designed to do. Now they’re working hard to extend that across the spectrum of mental illness and I applaud that. I think the credibility, the accessibility, the transparency, the oversight that is now starting to take root, is very heartening.”

About 16 months from the primary, Sutton does not appear to have outlined key policy proposals or platform focus areas, but indicated they will come in due time. At this point she appears mostly trying to establish her candidacy around her leadership style, including in juxtaposition to de Blasio’s, and pitching herself to New Yorkers as a sensible, center-left Democrat who wants to run city government well. She criticizes those of her competitors who are eschewing the real estate industry and its plentiful campaign donations, crediting it for important contributions to the city and saying that it is divisive to cast out all the people in a large, essential industry.

Asked about what other policy areas she wants to tackle and de Blasio programs she would undo or alter, Sutton said, “I think it’s important for communities to be able to come together and get beyond the debate between charter schools and regular public schools and be able to focus on school as community centers.” She praised the de Blasio administration’s community schools program and said she wants to “double and triple down that investment so that there is year-round programming at schools.”

“We can engage with parents, as well as students and really open up and ensure a range of options for our students to ensure not just their success in careers but in life, in citizenship and in service,” she continued. “I think it’s important to establish apprenticeships to be able to introduce our students to all kinds of different roles in the world.”

While she was critical of de Blasio’s relationship-building capabilities, Sutton was sure to say that he was “absolutely right” on his approach to the policing tactic of stop-and-frisk, the use of which his police department has significantly decreased after a great deal of controversy during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure and de Blasio’s 2013 campaign focus on the issue (stop-and-frisks dropped dramatically in Bloomberg’s final years as he faced a federal lawsuit and a great deal of criticism).

But, Sutton stressed, the next mayor must address a “growing sense of disrespect and lawlessness” she says is happening in New York City, “that I do think is tied to backing away from the kind of quality of life offenses, broken-windows policing methods that have worked so well in the past minus the overuse of stop-and-frisk.”

“I think that this next mayor is going to have to move from a tale of two cities to become a mayor of one city and quality-of-life resides at the very heart of that,” Sutton said. “It’s about education. It’s about safety. It’s about partnerships. It’s about the environment. It’s about community and those relationships. It’s about transit. That’s what I bring to the table.”

[Listen to Sutton’s full appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast]

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

Contrasting Herself with Former Boss Bill de Blasio, Loree Sutton Runs to be ‘Quality of Life’ Mayor Tue, 25 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Loree Sutton Loree Sutton

(photo: Mayor's office)

February 5, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Loree Sutton

Loree Sutton, a retired brigadier general and recently-departed commissioner of the city's Department of Veterans' Services, joined the show to discuss her campaign for mayor. Sutton, running in the 2021 Democratic primary, discussed the reasons she's running, her critiques of Mayor de Blasio, and much more.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: Mayoral Candidate Loree Sutton Wed, 05 Feb 2020 05:00:00 +0000
New Veterans Services Commissioner Lays Out Agenda at Council Oversight Hearing office mayor kierker

DVS Commissioner Hendon (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

At a City Council oversight hearing on Tuesday, the new commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS), James Hendon, outlined two main priorities for the next chapter of his department’s work and its efforts to help the city’s hundreds of thousands of military veterans.

Testifying before the Council’s Committee on Veterans, Hendon, who was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in October 2019, said he is focused on internal restructuring of DVS and outreach to the city’s veterans.

DVS was established in December 2015, becoming a stand-alone city department after having been a mayoral office, after a push by City Council members and veterans. That background and other key information was outlined in a report released by the Council’s Committee on Veterans before the hearing. According to the report, DVS provides four main services for veterans living in New York City, including engagement (such as educational resources), housing and career assistance, and the VetsThriveNYC health plan, which connects veterans with mental health resources in the city specifically for them. 

The goal of the oversight hearing was to “examine how DVS has changed since replacing the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs in 2015, the lessons it has learned, the new Commissioner’s plans for the future, and what goals the agency has to improve upon to ensure that all veterans in New York City are properly served,” according to the report. All five Council committee members were present, and Vincent Garcia, director of intergovernmental affairs and ombudsman, testified along with Hendon on behalf of DVS.

To begin, Hendon focused his prepared testimony on an internal restructuring that he’s leading at DVS.

“To be able to best assist the constituency we serve we must first be able to examine our  internal agency operations,” Hendon said. “As we began this phase shortly after my arrival, DVS is presently undergoing a reconfiguration into three teams: current operations, future operations, and administration.”

He drew a distinction is between the current and future operations teams. The current operations team will serve to maintain the commitments that have already begun, such as housing and engaging outside organizations, veteran service providers, and nonprofits, while the future operations team will develop strategic proposals, based on data, to introduce to expand DVS’ work.

Council Member Chaim Deutsch, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council’s veterans committee, pressed Hendon on how DVS will further reduce homelessness among the city’s veterans. Hendon said the key is to pre-empt homelessness before it happens, breaking down the problem by the teams created by the restructuring. The current operations team will tackle ongoing housing challenges that will be eased by the restructuring. Meanwhile, the future operations team will work to streamline relevant processes.

During Hendon’s initial testimony he discussed DVS’ outreach work, saying, “there is no substitute for boots on the ground or in-person connections. Veterans, and the subgroups we serve, including the elderly, students, family members, LGBTQ persons, women, those transitioning from service, and even those just entering the service requires a unique, diverse, and personal approach.”

Hendon said the major change in their approach to outreach is going from geographic to demographic. DVS is seeking to connect with veterans who are young professionals, students or elderly, versus those who live in a specific area. Hendon said this would allow DVS to meet veterans where they are, and a better way to begin to have a relationship with veterans. 

Deutsch pressed the new commissioner on this point, asking what DVS staff was doing, and if there could be a coordinated effort by the City Council, DVS, and advocates to spread the word and make sure everyone is aware of DVS and the services it provides.

Hendon hesitantly responded saying that it is a “delicate area” to ask employees to do this other work on top of their other responsibilities. Hendon agreed to ask DVS’ general counsel about an effort like Deutsch suggested.

Deutsch emphasized the need for a DVS presence at community board meetings, civic meetings, and community council meetings in all five boroughs, and Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, also a Brooklyn Democrat, cited the opportunity for outreach in the waiting rooms of federally-run VA hospitals. The need for greater outreach was reiterated by many of the advocates who also testified at the hearing -- they cited the need for awareness in order for veterans to receive the full benefits of government services they may access.

Hendon also mentioned that DVS has previously focused on the city’s most vulnerable veteran populations, but that DVS could also expand services to other groups, saying “young working professionals, middle class families and those looking to purchase a home, is an area of opportunity.” 

“Entering this next chapter we will focus our efforts on engaging the larger market share of veterans while maintaining our commitments to more vulnerable members of our community,” Hendon said.

When asked about suicide rates among the city’s veterans, Hendon said he could not provide numbers, but Garcia said DVS is actively working to “determine what those numbers look like, where that population is and how best to actually access that data” in an effort to know what we can do better as a society to address the prevalent issue of veteran suicide. Deutsch said he would like the numbers for the next hearing.

Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said during his testimony that 43% of IAVA’s members expressed suicide ideation and that nationwide, there were 6,139 veteran suicides in 2017, according to a September 2019 report released from the VA.

Advocates testified to push for services from DVS. Butler also highlighted a gap his organization has identified in DVS’ work.

“A clear deficit we see within DVS is the lack of a comprehensive case management component and an over-reliance on third-party programs to make referrals and connections to resources,” Butler said.

To increase DVS’ ability to act quickly for veterans, such as those with suicidal ideation, IAVA is advocating for an in-house case manager and veteran officer who could streamline the process.

Kent Eiler, project director of the City Bar Association’s Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, emphasized the need for outreach to service partners to avoid overlap in programming.

“It’s vital that DVS is engaged with the city’s veteran community. Its size and budget mean that to be effective, it must, prior to prescribing policy, consult with service providers and subject matter experts to learn what services are being provided to veterans, to avoid unnecessary duplication of existing services,” Eiler said.

Ampry-Samuel asked about DVS’ asks as the Council moves ahead in the city’s budget season. Hendon said he would get back to her with specific asks and budget implications. Hendon will likely testify at a Council budget hearing in the next couple of months.

Hendon said DVS is holding a partnership convening event on February 6, to meet with the communities and advocates the department works with to better determine the path forward under new leadership.

by Katie Kirker, Gotham Gazette

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New Veterans Services Commissioner Lays Out Agenda at Council Oversight Hearing Wed, 22 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
City Council Checks In On Department of Veterans Services, Discusses Reporting Bill committee vets hearing

Veterans Services Commissioner Loree Sutton, middle (photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)

The New York City Council’s Committee on Veterans met Monday to discuss a bill that would require the city’s Department of Veterans Services to release an annual report detailing certain information about its work to help the city’s military veterans, including the number of its employees and types services it is providing.

The chair of the committee, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, a Brooklyn Democrat, advocated for the bill, Intro. 1118, as a necessary step toward better understanding of what DVS is doing and what may be needed to improve services for veterans. However, DVS Commissioner Loree Sutton suggested that an additional report would be redundant, as DVS is already required to give a report to the committee under law (Local Law 23 of 2015, introduced by Council Member Paul Vallone, a Queens Democrat) and it also takes part in the Mayor’s Management Report, which gives detailed accounts of city agencies and their effectiveness.

“Currently, City budget documents and the MMR include most of the information sought through Intro. 1118,” Sutton said. “While DVS looks forward to continued collaboration with the City Council concerning DVS personnel and performance metrics, we are confident that these aims can be best achieved through existing reporting mechanisms.”

The bill would specifically ask for the title of and services provided by each employee, as well as the number of veterans and families to whom services had been provided and how they learned about the services.

Most of this information is indeed available elsewhere. The Mayor’s Management Report gives a summary of the services provided by DVS, the number of veterans and their families engaged by DVS and the number of them given assistance. When it comes to DVS employees and their titles, those can be found on the department’s website. However, this leaves questions concerning how the veterans and their families learned about services provided by the department and what services each employee specifically provides unanswered.

While Sutton believes any additional information should simply be added to the current required report, Deutsch said the bill is an important step forward.

“I think that this bill is a step forward to receiving the information that we need and we deserve and the veterans deserve,” Deutsch said. “And this way we can better continue to understand what the issues are and how we could better implement [solutions in] some of the areas that need improvement.”

After discussion between Deutsch and Sutton, the committee allowed advocates to voice their views.

President and Founding Director of NYC Veterans Alliance Kristen Rouse said the bill does not require enough reporting on the part of DVS.

“We state our strong support for this committee providing oversight of the services provided to veterans and their families by DVS and other city agencies, programs, and funding,” Rouse said. “We are, however, uncertain of whether Intro. 1118 or other recent bill proposals will effectively accomplish the oversight and accountability that our community has called for and deserves.”

Rouse went on to mention that the information DVS provided the committee under Local Law 23 had not yet been made publicly available, and that even better than the proposed bill would be “for this committee to examine ways it can further empower DVS to accomplish its mission.” Asking for the report to be made public, better tracking of services provided by DVS through VetConnect, and the creation of an Agency Chief Contracting Officer to manage city contracts for veterans services, Rouse proposed multiple reforms to which Deutsch responded, “we’ll have the committee get back to you.”

Director of the Veteran Advocacy Project Coco Culhane said her organization “supports the introduction of Local Law 1118 and believes that DVS reporting on even more figures than they already do will benefit the entire community.”

Senior Veteran Transition Manager of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Vadim Panasyuk noted the redundancy of the bill Sutton alluded to earlier, suggesting that different metrics should be used to better evaluate DVS.

“IAVA supports the intent behind this bill,” Panasyuk said. “However, it appears that it is somewhat redundant as some of the data is already available, and does not require the reporting of necessary metrics to accurately evaluate this department’s performance and many of its various initiatives.”

Panasyuk would like to see more qualitative data used in conjunction with “organizational and programmatic” metrics in order to better understand the population being served by DVS and the needs of that population.

Another adjustment to the bill was suggested by Vallone, who said it was “critical” that they incorporate a requirement for DVS to distinguish in reports which veterans found them through sister agencies and which came directly to them.

Ashton Stewart, coordinator with SAGE Vets Program, an LGBT veterans advocacy group, also requested a more detailed report. “This bill is just a start of the reporting, we need to start from somewhere,” Deutsch said.

Earlier in the hearing, other topics were discussed as part of oversight by the committee. Deutsch expressed concern over a decrease in applications for and awards of vending licenses to veterans, and inquired about why significantly more veterans where using federal housing vouchers in the Bronx than any other borough. Sutton commented on the delay of federal GI Bill housing allowances for student veterans, noting that DVS would collaborate with the Department of Social Services to attempt to allocate resources towards supporting students negatively affected by the delays.

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Checks In On Department of Veterans Services, Discusses Reporting Bill Tue, 30 Oct 2018 04:00:00 +0000
An End-of-Term Agenda for the City Council Veterans Committee City Council Ulrich hearing

Council Member Ulrich (photo: John McCarten)

In early 2014, City Council Member Eric Ulrich was appointed chair the veterans committee by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. At that time I wrote that no one within the veterans community knew what to expect, and as one of a few Republicans in a largely Democratic City Council, there were some who opposed Ulrich’s selection.

Fast forward nearly four years and the majority of the veterans community agrees that without his leadership and guidance, there would not have been a renewed conversation and there certainly wouldn’t have been many legislative accomplishments, particularly the creation of the Department of Veterans’ Services (DVS).  I dare say that Ulrich’s record of accomplishments, along with Council Member Paul Vallone and the other veterans committee members, has been the greatest within the Council since I started as an advocate back in 1995.

With the general election coming next month and the race for the next Speaker already hot, there are some who believe that if re-elected, Ulrich may be moved to chair a new committee by the next Speaker. There are many moving part to this equation, but given the final three months of this Council’s term are upon us, there is some important veterans business to take care of.

The veterans committee held a hearing earlier this week, and with that and the ticking clock in mind, there are several topics the committee should consider holding hearings on over the coming months.

Department of Veterans’ Services: This week the veterans committee held an oversight hearing on DVS. This hearing focused on the growth and accomplishments of the agency since it came online in April 2016.

Overall, many agree that there have been a number of successes, but growing pains and confounding issues as well. While DVS leadership touted the department’s work and successes, particularly with its integrative health model (VetsThriveNYC), its work regarding housing homeless veterans, its Public Artist in Resident program, and its information and technology, many items remain.

Procurement of its VetsConnectNYC program, an online platform that will connect veterans with service providers, is still being negotiated. Veterans are concerned about information missing on DVS’ website, its lack of inclusion in the Mayor’s Management Report (MMR), which DVS reps acknowledged will be in the next report, and the functions and actual outreach of the Community Outreach Specialists.

Lastly, many veteran organizations receiving money from the City through the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) have stated that DVS needs to have autonomous control over contracts to speed up the contracting processing and disbursement of funds, particularly for those veteran organizations that have unique contracting situations. This issue should be considered for a separate hearing with the Council’s finance committee.

Veteran Treatment Courts: Almost two years ago the committee held a hearing regarding Veteran Treatment Courts throughout the city; as well as Council Member Rory Lancman’s 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. Unfortunately, that bill, Intro. 793, didn’t make it out of committee, however with Congressional Rep. Dan Donovan’s recent announcement of grants for Veteran Treatment Courts; and the Manhattan veterans court up and running, the time is right to revisit this issue to see what the courts are doing, learning, learning from each other, and how they have evolved in helping veterans from all eras.

Veteran Homelessness: In 2009 there were roughly 3,700 homeless veterans in New York City.  At the end of 2015 the federal government announced that New York City had ended chronic veteran homelessness, meaning veterans homeless for long periods of time or repeatedly. That is a major accomplish that could not have taken place without a coordinated approach from federal, state and city agencies.

In November 2015, the Council’s veterans committee, in conjunction with the general welfare committee held a hearing on what the city was doing to provide services to veterans, especially those experiencing homelessness. With the recent announced reductions of SSVF providers last month, along with the city not reaching “functional zero” and the federal VA dropping that goal recently, an update is needed in regards to what the veterans homeless population looks like, where the dity is in maintaining the end of “chronic homelessness” for veterans and what the plans are to address any future changes that may come from the federal government. This hearing also needs to solicit input from non-profits that are working on the ground with this population.

Veteran Small Business and Entrepreneurship: Almost three years ago, the veterans committee, along with the small business committee, held a hearing on supporting veteran-owned businesses. This was based on Local Law 144 of 2013, which required the Department of Small Business Services (SBS) to study veteran-owned business enterprises and determine the need for a city veteran-procurement program.

In December 2014, SBS, the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services (MOCS), and the then-Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) published a report of their findings, which the committees examined at a January 2015 hearing. The report contained seven recommendations, which included increasing outreach to veterans, better training veteran business owners (VBOs) on how to do business with the city, and creating a designation for VBOs who wish to be potential vendors with the city.

There was also discussion of supporting the development of a veterans business enterprise program (VEB) through executive fiat (as a pilot program) or by working with the City Council to create legislation for the program. With the rise of veteran entrepreneurs over the last couple of years, there needs to be a hearing to update what has changed and where DVS and SBS are with this issue.  

Lastly, the committee should also consider follow-up hearings regarding the City University of New York (CUNY); as well as from DVS regarding its new public-private partnership “Veterans on Campus-NYC.”  The committee should consider holding a hearing on the overall veterans population in New York City and should hold a hearing in the Bronx, as Council Member Ulrich promised to Council Member Fernando Cabrera earlier this year.

This is a fairly hefty agenda and some issues will certainly get left off the table. However, if Council Member Ulrich and the committee members continue to approach veterans’ issues with the diligence they’ve shown over the past three and a half years, they will have a busy and productive next few months, and leave the committee in a much better place for whoever follows.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for over two decades. He is a member of the City’s Veterans Advisory Board and the founder of NY MetroVets.

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An End-of-Term Agenda for the City Council Veterans Committee Thu, 05 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000
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.

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 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.”

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Note: this article has been updated with additional information.

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 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.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior 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 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.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior 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