UNDERSERVICE FOR THOSE WHO SERVED

On February 2013, I called the Veterans Affairs to ask for housing assistance. We have been hesitant to resort to seek any form of government help because we have an aversion to “begging” especially if we can avoid it. But it was time to swallow our pride. I lost my job recently and I was just tired of dealing with online crooks while looking for an apartment.

Looking for an apartment in NYC is very challenging and frustrating. You will be overwhelmed by teeming scammers online trying to swindle people. I wound up checking ads and getting responses from people asking for downpayment but the owner just isnt available to meet us. They would say they are too busy and will just mail us the keys after we wire them the payment. On top of that they would attach photos on their ads enticing potential applicants with an image of a nice looking apartment. But after you look it up on google maps, something is just amiss. The position of the window for instance just seem impossible especially if it is located on the side where another separate apartment is. In short there is a wall dividing the two properties so there is no way the one we are interested in will have a window on the wall of the adjacent apartment.

It has been one disappointment after another that led us to check alternative ways of getting an apartment from trustworthy sources. I figured that probably the Department of Veterans can give us some recommendations. I called VA 1-877-4AID VET (877-424-3838) HOTLINE and the next day I received a callback from a lady who gave me several numbers to call. I called all the numbers she gave me and it was a bit exasperating. There was the automated phone, then there were those who kept giving the run around.

Finally, I did get a live person who instructed me to call this organization called Services for the Underserved. I called them right away and spoke to the officer in charge Mr Adam. He arranged for me and my husband to meet up with them at their Brooklyn office. He said he would assign a case worker who will be assisting us. In the interim before our scheduled appointment, I checked the SUS website. The testimonials and information on their site made me feel confident that we found the right people.

On their website under the Veterans tab, the SSVF mission statement stood out:

Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program

The Supportive Services for Veterans Families Program (SSVF), a critical element of the VA’s plan to prevent and end Veteran homelessness, delivers short-term rapid rehousing and homeless prevention services to homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. Program services are designed to promote long-term housing stability and include outreach, care coordination, home finding, assistance in obtaining VA and other public benefits, and making financial assistance payments on behalf of Veterans for purposes such as rent payments, utility payments, security deposits, and moving costs.

We showed up on our scheduled appointment and were warmly welcomed by the case worker, one veteran staff and Adam. We were even offered hot drinks. Our case worker went on to discuss how SUS can help us find an apartment in the shortest time possible. We thought, this is really great. We were glad that VA has taken serious steps to take care of its veterans especially those with issues of finding housing. The case worker was really pleasant and seemingly well-informed. She also offered other help like finding a job and gave me a stack of paper for low-cost apartments. We explained to her our situation and our dire need to get an apartment soon. We were told that we needed to submit some documents and after we have been considered eligible, they will hook us up with brokers to find a feasible apartment and eventually help us with the start-up costs. We left the required paperwork with them .

When we left their office, we were brimming with excitement and hope that we will find a home soon. A couple of days after our meeting,we corresponded via email with the case worker and she requested for extra paperwork which we promptly sent back.

We also received soft documents through email that required the veteran/applicant signature. Among the documents is a disclosure agreement allowing SUS to give our information to the brokers. We signed the documents and sent it back. Also, one of these documents was an outline of what the case worker’s goals are in handling our case. The target date for completion or review was noted as February 28, 2013. The next review and Plan update noted as May 15, 2013.

She also went on to explain to us how it works.

Its okay.  Based on your application entries, I will attempt to locate a broker/managing agent in your area of interest.  They will ask to speak with you all.  They will schedule apartment viewings.  Credit, most likey, will be screened.  The application for an apartment is reviewed by the managing agents/brokers/landlords.  Once a feasible place is located and the application is approved, the broker/managing agent/landlord will request housing start up costs (i.e., advanced rent, security deposit, and broker’s fee).

After a couple of weeks, we received a list of brokers from our case worker. I called each of them and introduced myself. I had to name drop SUS a couple of times so that they would know I’m calling under the VA/SSVF program. They seem all helpful although out of the 4 brokers I contacted only one was helpful in giving me a heads up on any available apartments and the ideal time to view it. The rest told me they will call me back but never did. I called the broker every week to check if he had something for us. He told me he would call once there was.

Around this time I was starting to get impatient and worried because the weeks were about to stretch to 2 months and we havent even covered anything substantial to make us conclude if we will get an apartment soon. I echoed my sentiments to the case worker.

Good afternoon. I just wanted to update you on my conversation with the brokers. I haven’t heard from any of them as of today. Mr G said he will contact me once he finds an apartment for us. Another lady Ms S said she will do the same. But that was a week ago. I was kinda hoping they were gonna show us some apartments this week while my husband is on spring break. It has been over a month since we spoke personally with you and we do appreciate the help and all but we really are in need of getting an apartment soon. I hope you can relay my message to the brokers too whether they can help us or not so we know whether we need to look elsewhere for assistance. Thank you so much and I hope to hear from you.

We received an email from her and she told us that finding an apartment is a concerted effort from the applicant, broker and the case worker.

Her email :

I am so sorry that you all are not getting the response you expected. I have spoken to many brokers on your behalf. Housing search is not an easy task. However, it is an effort made by all of us together. You are more than welcome to search for assistance elsewhere. If so, please let us know. Would you like for me to provide you with any referrals?

Sure she had the right to be defensive. But I think it was understandable how I felt. It has been a month and a half since we spoke to her. None of the brokers were calling me with a follow-up although I made an effort to get in touch with them. I was simply getting upset and worried that we may have been forgotten. I let her know we will wait for the brokers to call and then update her. We decided that we have waited already this long so we might as well pursue the application. It just didn’t make sense to start from scratch and send paperwork again knowing it takes forever before we would get some concrete response.

After a couple of weeks, one of the brokers finally called me. He set up a view date. However on the day before that schedule I did not receive his call to confirm. I called him the following week and he told me he was just waiting for me to call him back. We set another date to view the apartment. He also stressed that if he couldn’t be there physically to accommodate us, the super is aware we will be coming.  He even arranged for one of the apartment to be open so we can just walk in and inspect the place. We made it to the scheduled place and time and met the super of the building. Fortunately, the broker  managed to show up and even took us to another building to view an apartment.

During this time, I sent emails to our case worker to let her know what was going on. She replied and wished us luck.

We did find an apartment we liked and I informed our case worker about it right away. I even told her that there is an application fee of 100, which is honestly a big deal for us. She said that such non related rent fees are not covered by SUS/SSVF.

Her email :

Unfortunately, the national SSVF Program prohibits grantees from paying dues, fees, or at this time. If you are interested in a specific unit, please discuss with broker/managing agent/landlord to see if a payment arrangement can be made.

So I shelled out the application fee and hoped for the best. Later on I brought up the issue of the financial assistance (start-up cost) she offered during our meeting at their Brooklyn office.

She replied:

Good morning.

You are welcome.

Temporary financial assistance is not a required service of SSVF. Supportive services grant funds should only be used as direct financial assistance as a last resort. You all should first explore the available homeless and mainstream financial assistance options. Below is a list of resources that may be able to assist you all in housing start up costs (i.e., one month’s rent, security deposit, broker’s fee):

1. Michael J. Handy Veterans Job Center, 25 Chapel Street, Suite 606, Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 473-8313

2. call 311

3. East Harlem Neighborhood-Based Alliance Corporation, 2253 Third Avenue, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10035, (212) 289-1900

4. Catholic Charities, 1011 First Avenue, New York, NY 10022, (212) 371-1000

5. www.nyc.gov

6. Community Service Society, (212) 254-8900

7. Legal Aid Society (Lower Manhattan), 199 Water Street, New York, New York 10038, (212) 440-4300

8. NYC DHS VSU, 40 Flatbush Avenue Extension, 8th Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 439-4371

My heart sank. It seems they aren’t willing to REALLY HELP US. Not, until we have exhausted other means. Whatever happened to “we will work together”? The truth rears its ugly head when its time for them to offer the real service that we truly needed. It’s like an insurance company. Everything is swell until you file a claim. They wanted us to go look for help somewhere and only come back to SUS if all fails. Seriously? WTF.

After I received this email I researched online and found out that VA does encourage SSVF grantees to explain to applicants to explore other options and use the SSVF funds as a last resort).

Snippets related to this matter of Temporary Financial Assistance:

From VA website:

2. Eligible Temporary Financial Assistance

Grantees may choose to provide temporary financial assistance to participants, but it is not a required service. Supportive services grant funds should only be used as direct financial assistance as a last resort, after first exploring the available homeless and mainstream financial assistance options such as Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) program assistance and TANF. Grantees may choose to provide temporary financial assistance as a supplement to services provided to a participant as part of a plan to increase the participant‘s housing stability. Per 38 CFR 62.34, eligible forms of temporary financial assistance are:

 Rental assistance;

 Utility-fee payment assistance;

 Deposits (security or utility);

 Moving costs;

 Purchase of emergency supplies for a participant;

 Transportation; and

 Child care.

The sectioned part of the same article on this link states:

homelessness

Her email to me almost seem verbatim lifted out of the same document. Unfortunately, she never discussed any of this to us, until now. We were told before we left that building that they will help us with the start-up cost whatever it may be. There was nothing mentioned ever about us having to go call a list of other numbers or “after first exploring the available homeless and mainstream financial assistance”.

They are aware that it is not that simple to just call an organization and demand for financial help and expect to get it pronto. Besides, this list of people don’t even know our situation and story. They don’t have any of our paperwork. Do I have to repeat myself all over and go through the long arduous process of submitting documents and waiting for a callback to let us know we qualify?

But despite my disgust and annoyance over the ridiculous response I received from our case worker, I went ahead and called the numbers she sent me. Unfortunately, it was a worthless piece of information that could in no way give us any relief at this point. I called the numbers and its either no one was there, one number said the place was closed and the rest told me the person in charge will call me back.

After 2 months, they decide to bring this up only at this crucial moment when we are close to getting a place. If they had been transparent during our conversation and have advised us that we had to look for alternative means of funding, we could have sorted this out and tried to get extra help.

But not NOW, Now that we are a week away from securing an apartment. I asked the case worker so many times during our emails what I needed to do to help. Other than the fact I was already calling and doing all the follow-up with the brokers. The case worker just emailed and asked us for updates.

An example of one of my emails asking her what I needed to do on my part and profusely thanking her.

Just let me know how the process works so I can also contribute to the effort of finding us an apartment. I honestly have no idea so forgive me for asking a bunch of questions. Thank you for the help. We are still hoping and praying we get an apartment soon:-)

Her response:

Okay. I understand. We will work on this together.

So now that I need the actual help where is it? Or is this just lip service?

I have not received any reply from the SUS caseworker nor her supervisor after I emailed them emphasizing what SSVF programs are intended for, and why it gives grants to organization such as theirs. I spoke to the broker and said he will take care of it. So, now Im just waiting on whats going to happen next. SUS is totally stonewalling me after I asked the magic question (ie Show me the money!!).

Last night I went through some of the documents SUS gave us during our meeting with them. Here is a section of the SSVF Fact sheet flyer:

fact sheet

The part that mentions the Temporary Financial Assistance:

IMG_20130424_150841

Supportive Services: Through the SSVF Program, VA aims to improve very low-income Veteran families’ housing stability. Grantees (private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives) will provide outreach and case management services and will assist participants to obtain VA benefits and other public benefits, which may include:

 Health care services

 Daily living services

 Personal financial planning services

 Transportation services

 Fiduciary and payee services

 Legal services

 Child care services

 Housing counseling services

 Temporary financial assistance, including time-limited payments to third parties for rent, utilities, moving expenses, security and utility deposits, transportation, child care and emergency supplies

Does SUS really care like they say they do?

On the SUS website, they have this interesting article Testimony of SUS at the Joint hearing on Veteran Homelessness Committees on General Welfare and Veterans:

“While the VA system provides a comprehensive network of high-quality health and human services, SUS has learned that half of our veterans prefer services outside of the VA.

Overwhelmingly, veterans find the city, state and federal service systems fragmented and difficult to navigate and they seek one door to services. Toward planning a comprehensive approach to supporting these veterans following overseas deployment, we also know that returning Service members return to the communities from which they deployed and will require community-based supports that facilitate their successful adjustment to civilian life while they recover from the psychological and physical wounds of war. For example, following a period of deployment, or multiple deployments, many individuals will require high levels of assistance with activities of daily living, assistance reestablishing connections with primary medical care, employment, social supports, family members, benefits, entitlements and other supportive services.

Given this set of conditions and circumstances, homeless veterans live with exacerbated levels of self-perceived hopelessness, stigmatization, social rejection and social stress. We therefore, need to be flexible, creative, resourceful, patient and transparent if we are to successfully elicit trust and engage homeless veterans in a transition to housing stability and independence. SUS is acutely aware that attention must be paid to the unique characteristics of every individual seeking to make a change in his or her own life. Accordingly, SUS works to actively understand both the cultures of military life and homelessness while concurrently fostering a new culture of wellness and recovery that offers the people we serve tools and living environments that promote healing, hope and the achievement of personal goals and preferred life roles.

Our staff members take pride in their commitment to, and expertise in, working with individuals marginalized by society. Today, SUS is able to provide an integrated continuum of services addressing concurrently the housing, employment, treatment and support needs of over 400 veterans and veteran families in New York City. Our veterans’ services target actively those individuals and families at highest risk for death due to the effects of chronic homelessness, unemployment, untreated medical, psychiatric and substance abuse disorders, and disconnection from family, social and other natural supports. SUS currently operates five programs, integrated as a coordinated continuum of care, serving approximately 400 Veterans and their families of which nearly 90 percent are homeless, 70 percent live with co-occurring chronic mental illness, substance abuse disorders, and or serious health conditions, 40 percent have a history of involvement with the criminal justice system, nearly all qualify as very-low income according to federal guidelines, and approximately half of those we serve are recent veterans returning from the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, approximately 150 Veterans utilize SUS mental health and housing services outside the auspices of these specific veterans’ programs.”

The VA award grants to organizations like SUS to provide service to the veterans and the families. And to reiterate their statement that they claim to understand the situation of veterans:

“Given this set of conditions and circumstances, homeless veterans live with exacerbated levels of self-perceived hopelessness, stigmatization, social rejection and social stress. We therefore, need to be flexible, creative, resourceful, patient and transparent if we are to successfully elicit trust and engage homeless veterans in a transition to housing stability and independence. SUS is acutely aware that attention must be paid to the unique characteristics of every individual seeking to make a change in his or her own life. Accordingly, SUS works to actively understand both the cultures of military life and homelessness while concurrently fostering a new culture of wellness and recovery that offers the people we serve tools and living environments that promote healing, hope and the achievement of personal goals and preferred life roles.”

Sounds really moving. But I didn’t feel like that the case worker was resourceful or patient enough. Neither did I see any transparency or flexibility. They were indeed creative in carefully crafting information to make sure we were misled. Unfortunately we did give them our trust when we took their word that they will HELP us.

On the VA Website it is stated that the main purpose of the SSVF IS:

“At the 2012 NCHV Annual Conference, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki explained the “two-fold challenge” of ending veteran homelessness: “rescuing veterans who are already homeless while simultaneously preventing those at risk of homelessness from slipping into that downward spiral.” VA’s prevention efforts are dependent upon the SSVF Program— the core of the department’s future homeless veteran service delivery system.

“rescuing veterans who are already homeless while simultaneously preventing those at risk of homelessness from slipping into that downward spiral.”

Is SUS waiting for us to be out on the street before they do something about our situation? Sending us emails and asking for updates are not enough. We need the financial assistance they promised. The grant they receive are meant for Veterans and their families who need it. If the organization cannot do that, they should not get such grants under the pretense they want to help. It is fraudulent to acquire federal money and not use it for its intended purpose.

The flyer given to us at the SUS office clearly indicates that temporary financial assistance is part of the service SSVF program is supposed to provide.

I think at this point, their assistance is the only resort we have left. We do not have the luxury to dilly dally otherwise all the effort and money we put into this apartment hunting will just go down the drain. It would have been great if the case worker had informed or educated us, like she was supposed to do, ahead of time. Better yet if she has just given me the pdf related to this issue, about resorting to other resources first, I would have gladly read it. Unfortunately this very important aspect of the program was never discussed or even hinted at until now that we are running out of time and we need to act fast before we become homeless.

In a nutshell, this is just becoming one ugly cycle of passing the buck. On February 7 2013 I called the VA hotline. From the hotline I was referred to SUS. After 2 months Im given another bunch of numbers to call to get assistance from. When will this bureaucracy stop? Are they waiting before someone is officially homeless, depressed, suicidal and eventually a hopeless case before they do any intervention? Isnt the SSVF program designed precisely to aid the needy veterans and their families?

If SUS wants a good testimonial, they should not speak on their behalf. Let those who they have helped be their living testimonial. Action and not just Words make the difference. Action and not words will keep us out of the streets. It is the least they could do to someone who has served his country. Besides, this is not a dole out from their pockets. Its taxpayers’ dime specifilcally allocated by the VA for people like us who need it most.

As Eric Shinseki has eloquently pointed out on the VA website:

eric

NO ONE WHO HAS SERVED THIS NATION AS A VETERAN SHOULD EVER BE LIVING ON THE STREET.

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