Dayton, Ohio, where you need an advocate to get help from the advocates

Note- this is a longer than usual post. Many of you won’t care to finish it- TL/DR. But, if you care about the state of veterans in our community, I ask you to please read, and think, and hopefully, reach out to your local elected leaders and say “this is unacceptable.” I don’t want to pull up the statistics on how many veterans are committing suicide every day in our country to guilt you into action, I just want to show that if I can do this, you can make a difference. Thank you.

It’s been 2 days since I had a homeless veteran sleeping on my couch. He’s now in a 1-bedroom apartment, with food, clothes, the beginnings of a kitchen, and a friend is over there as I write this, helping him unpack, organize and work on the life skills for independent living.

I am cosigned on the lease, I’ve probably invested close to 75 hours working on this, and between myself and another friend, am at least $1,100 out of pocket.

For right now- this is a happy ending. The story of how he got here is an indictment of our country’s completely unrealistic approach to mental health care and the failings of our social services safety net. But without an advocate, with access to a phone, fax, copier, the internet, and a whole Rolodex of connections, this story would be different, but, unlike the death of a young basketball player, there would be no service, no social media posts, no articles on the front page- just another veteran, dead with an inch in the paper- if that.

Rewind to the beginning. Sean (not his real name) was a star athlete growing up in Dayton. He went away to a military prep school, and then to one of the military academies. Somewhere in his Junior year, he had a manic episode to top all manic episodes. While it ran in the family, this was severe. Could it have been caused by the stress of the academy, while participating in D-1 sports? Sure- could it have been compounded because of steroid use- much more common then, possibly?  He was discharged with a DD-214, honorably. It says 3 years, 4 months 22 days of active service. In the part that’s not for public consumption- it says “Medically disenrolled.” He wasn’t even in a condition to sign it when he left the military.

Dayton VA ad promoting access- by pointing out myths of eligibility

The VA advertises to let people know that all veterans are eligible for care

For over 20 years, he’s struggled with his illness, never going to the VA for help, not because he didn’t need it, but probably because he didn’t realize he was eligible. Just today, the Dayton VA ran an ad in the paper with the common misconceptions of eligibility- it’s a problem the organization is fighting hard to overcome.

Between the discharge and today, he got married, fathered a son, held a sales job, and had episodic bouts of illness, resulting in loss of job, wife, family. He was particularly close to his father who died young, at 62.

In the end, his athletic connections have been the ones that have served him best. One friend, has packed up his things and moved him more than a few times, when extended hospitalizations have set him back.

Another, re-connected with him about half a dozen years ago- and offered him a job as a pizza delivery driver. He got a place in my ‘hood, and showed up for work like clockwork. He was living on tips and his 100% disability with Social Security. He was functioning, but, would have episodes of bad judgment. In 2012 he abused a girlfriend’s credit card. And sometime in 2015 he went to a buy-here pay-here car lot, and someone took advantage of him, selling him a $9K Honda Civic for $18k at 25% interest.

Next thing you know- the wheels fall off. Social Security says he’s making too much money and cuts his benefits off. He takes a second job delivering pizzas, and stops taking one of his meds because he needs to stay awake. The mania gets worse and worse, and next thing you know his caseworker at Eastway sends the police to his door to check on him after he had talked about harming himself. He ends up in Miami Valley Hospital for a week to adjust his meds. He gets out, he goes for a few beers at Blind Bob’s to celebrate. Bad idea. The next few days are hell for everyone around him. Next thing you know, he’s MIA. Finally we find him in the Warren County Jail. He was on the side of I-75 hitting golf balls when the state troopers found him. He’s not wearing a belt, and when he goes to get some ID out of the car- moons the cops accidentally. Two charges: public intox and public indecency. They’ve already shuffled him out of the jail to Summit Behavioral in Cincinnati- one of the few remaining state mental-health treatment facilities. He’s there for a few months.

I end up with both durable and medical power of attorney and begin my quest to get him into the VA system and get him the help and benefits that he’s earned.

One friend moves his stuff into storage. The apartment looks like a disaster. Obviously, his illness had been progressing for a while- but no one had checked on him. The car gets turned back in. They stick him with a $12K debt on a car worth $8K that they sold for $6K. The medical bill from Miami Valley for a week in the psych ward- over $30K. Hmmm, I could have sent him on a cruise on the French Rivera first class and paid off his car for that- and it would have probably been more therapeutic.

I’m gathering the list of documents needed to get help from the Montgomery County Veterans Services Commission. I’m a little bit lucky in that I know the director, and Ashley Webb who sits on the commission. I’m also lucky I know a few lawyers, because I need to find his divorce decree, get bank records and apply for his DD-214. Turns out, after waiting five weeks, I call St. Louis and they tell me they don’t have it- I have to call the Academy. Luckily there, a sharp sergeant takes pity on me, and makes a superhuman effort and gets me the 214 next day and the medical and scholastic records in days. Yes, the military does run on NCO power, no matter what your Congressman thinks.

He gets discharged from Summit Behavioral to “The Lodge”- a halfway house operated by Eastway. They allow for 28 days of temporary housing (after an extension is granted). He’s there 4 days and back in Miami Valley again. While he’s gone- his clothes, his phone, the radio his kid gave him, all disappear, as do a bunch of his days that he was eligible for a bed.

In the mean time, my office manager, Jen Selhorst, has a background in property management and has worked carefully with St. Vincent DePaul’s SSVF program. She even applied for a job as a case manager there but was sent packing because her degree was in marketing- not social work. She’d volunteered for several veterans’ groups. She jumped all over this.

SSVF is a federal program from the VA- administered by local non-profits. Here, we have the St. Vincent’s program and one run by Volunteers of America. Bonus points- my company does work for the guy who runs the VOA program. We touch base with him as well. He tells me the two programs collaborate and coordinate and work well together. Since we’ve already begun with St. VdP- stick with them.

The clock is ticking on the halfway house. He has to be out by last Tuesday. We need to find him a place- Jen scours Craigslist and finds a 1-bedroom on Wayne Ave. She meets the landlord’s agent, the case worker- they approve the space, sign the lease. This is a huge win- SSVF brings a case worker- who will help with signing him up for food stamps, the PIP program, get him an “Obama Phone” and will co-sign the lease and pay the deposit and up to 6 months’ rent to help him get back on his feet.

From the regs- by law, this is what they do:

Supportive services means any of the following provided to address the needs of a participant:

  • Outreach services as specified under § 62.30
  • Case management services as specified under § 62.31
  • Assisting participants in obtaining VA benefits as specified under § 62.32
  • Assisting participants in obtaining and coordinating other public benefits as specified under § 62.33
  • Other services as specified under § 62.34
    Supportive services grant means a grant awarded under this part.

Except come Tuesday- move-in day, we find out that they say he’s not eligible for SSVF- because he was always in “training status” and never active duty.

Before I’d accepted the POA- I’d done a bunch of searches on if he was eligible for VA care- since he was at the academy. Everything I’d found said yes. However, since I’m not being paid to take care of him, or advocate for him, I’d focused 100% of my efforts on keeping him off the streets. By 11 a.m. Tuesday- he’s homeless with 2 garbage bags of clothes, his meds and no place to go except my couch, which is where he landed.

I’m pissed. I contact my friend State Rep. Jim Butler– who had a similar military record- except his medical discharge came while he was training to be a fighter pilot after he’d graduated from the academy. He looks into SSVF and finds the regs. http://www.va.gov/HOMELESS/ssvf/docs/SSVF_Program_Guide_March_2015_Edition.pdf

I look at the index- see “ELIGIBILITY” page 16- and see the only requirement is a DD-214, but they are all hung up about a line on page 6:

Veteran: A person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released there from under conditions other than dishonorable. Note that the period of service must include service in active duty for purposes other than training.
Yet on page 17:
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS SUPPORTIVE SERVICES FOR VETERAN FAMILIES PROGRAM GUIDE
LAST UPDATED MARCH, 2014
Section V | Page 17 SECTION V | PARTICIPANT ELIGIBILITY SECTION B.
Determining Veteran Household Status Eligibility
As discussed above, eligible participants will be part of a “Veteran family,” meaning that the person to be served is either (a) a Veteran; or (b) a member of a family in which the head of household, or the spouse of the head of household, is a Veteran.
1. Verifying Veteran Status
As per 38 CFR 62.2, “Veteran” is defined as “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released there from under conditions other than dishonorable.”
Note that bad conduct discharges are not the same as dishonorable, and as such, are eligible.
Furthermore, for Veterans with multiple discharges, the best discharge status may be used for SSVF eligibility.
To prove a participant’s Veteran status, grantees should obtain at least one of the following documents:
  • Veteran’s Department of Defense (DD) Form 214 Certificate of Release Discharge from Active Duty
  • VBA Statement of Service (SOS)
  • VHA Veteran’s Identity card
  • VISTA printout from VHA healthcare provider
  • Hospital Inquiry System (HINQS)
  • VBA award letter of service connected disability payment or non-service connected pension
  • Veterans Choice Card.

You’ll notice- the text is the same- except for the “other than training” which doesn’t show up anywhere else. The DD-214 clearly says he has active duty time. This “training” exception seems random. Mr. Butler is following up with congressional contacts.

However, if he had a VA ID card, he’d be good too- but, currently with the VA taking as long as 6 months to process claims, I’d focused on housing first. Note, at no time did anyone at Montgomery County Veterans Services volunteer to manage his intake to the VA system- all they did was push the inch-thick stack of papers back at me saying “you don’t have a  photo ID” for him- we can’t proceed.

In fact, the lady at the desk had me fill out the paperwork and write down what he was requesting for “Emergency Assistance” – I’d written down pay off utility bills, first month’s rent and deposit, cell phone, and something else- and she said “We don’t do deposits or cell phones.” Later, when I was questioned about the photo ID- I asked could he get a car- since he was a pizza delivery driver- and the answer was no. When I asked if there was a list of things that they could do- the answer was no. But I was told to make a good request, because they can only help twice a year. Really? Only twice a year?

Talking this over with Ashley Webb- he said he’d been researching VSC in other counties, what they require for assistance, what they offer. He’d already caught the fact that the Montgomery County VSC had 6 extra political appointees illegally- and was now working to figure out why they routinely give back over half their veteran budget to the County General Fund every year. When I’d founded VOB-108, now VOB Ohio, you would have thought they would have supported us with open arms- with our Vetrepreneur Academy and other Veteran focused issues- but, no. Their director came to maybe 2 of our events in 7 years- and never contributed either ideas or money to help us help veterans.

I’d even applied for a vacancy on the VSC. The seats are appointed by a panel of judges. I wasn’t even interviewed, and they gave the seat to a guy who is equally as dismayed about the malfeasance displayed by this organization. With two of the five seats now occupied by people with a heartbeat, and possibly with an investigation following this post- we may see some changes.

In order to get our veteran into his current home, thanks have to go out to the Blue Star Mothers of America Dayton Chapter who immediately cut a check for the deposit, came up with kitchen supplies, a crock pot and a microwave- and a care package including more snack food than a whole soccer team can eat in a week. Perhaps we should turn over the Veterans Service Commission funds to them- as well as the SSVF funds. No delays, no hoops to jump through. Veteran in need- what can we do to help?

Before the issue of Sean came up- I went to a meeting in the county building about the efforts of stopping homelessness among vets in Montgomery County. The meeting started with about 100 bureaucrats- and dwindled to about 50 by the end when questions were opened up. I pushed for Single Room Occupancy/Co-housing or micro-housing options for veterans, which are currently illegal in Dayton and most of the region. At the end of WWII – returning vets ended up in many of these types of housing and it worked well. Now, with it illegal to build a house under 900 square feet- and for more than 3 unrelated people to co-habit, we’ve sort of forced these guys into too much house for their means.

Charles Meadows, formerly with the city of Dayton called me a liar in front of the audience when I said I’d had a friend who had 4 such places, renting by the week, in Old North Dayton for years and that they were clean and respectable. It’s this kind of bullying I just love in our city. The fact is, Sean isn’t really capable of managing his affairs without someone checking in on him regularly, and this small apartment comes with costs that without him getting his SS or VA benefits back in a hurry are going to end up making me the fall back safety net.

I’ve heard that the former Daybreak facility on Wayne is being looked at for a veterans’ housing solution which would be a great start, but, honestly, maybe a better start was having advocates that actually advocate for veterans working in the positions mandated by law to do that very job.

 

 

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