Veterans Day--Better Ideas for Vets

Veterans Day provides an opportunity to consider ways to serve those who have served their country. Two newly announced federal initiatives can produce opportunities for...
by | November 11, 2009
 

Veterans Day provides an opportunity to consider ways to serve those who have served their country.

Two newly announced federal initiatives can produce opportunities for local and state officials to enhance their services to veterans--one looks to vets as assets with much to offer to their communities and the other looks (sometimes unfairly) to struggling vets as a problem for their communities to manage.

The problem of homeless vets first became particularly obvious in cities following the Vietnam War as many former servicemen became visible sleeping or begging on streets. Efforts over the subsequent decades, often insufficient in resources, were often also insufficient in approach. Communities when they responded often did so primarily through a housing lens--providing temporary shelter. But if the shelter becomes a recurring place through which a vet passes has he truly been given the help he needs?

On November 4, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki announced an ambitious effort to provide three billion dollars in funding to end homelessness. Pledging more money might be the easy part of the effort. Many, if not most, of the homeless suffer from substance abuse, mental health and other problems, including of course in the recession the lack of employment opportunities. For every problem there exists a federal program, each with its own rules, bureaucrats and procedures.

Better, faster, cheaper responses require government both to be addressing the right problem and doing so in a flexible way that allows for local innovation. VA and local officials interested in solving these intractable homeless challenges would be well advised to look at two previous Harvard Innovations award winners for inspiration. The New York City Department of Homeless Services for years thought its mission was to provide shelters to those who were homeless, and in so doing produced much more shelter capacity and even more demand for that capacity. Eventually, creative New York City officials moved out of the business of viewing themselves as a shelter operation and instead understood their mission as one that prevents homelessness by intervening earlier and addressing the reasons for homelessness.

Earlier this year, Harvard's Innovation program recognized the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) for its efforts to end chronic homelessness. Under the leadership of then executive director Phil Mangano, USICH partnered with more than 850 mayors and county executives in an effort to end chronic homelessness. The lessons from this effort can help local officials in their efforts for veterans as the USICH stressed innovative business models and creative collaborations. The USICH efforts yielded new research, new resources, and new results for ending homelessness in jurisdictions across the country.

The early intervention and supportive housing models require the local nonprofit to be very sophisticated in merging various funding programs and integrating services. HUD and VA could help these groups assist more individuals by removing regulatory restrictions and funding the providers based on performance. In addition, providing vets in need with more vouchers would allow them more frequently to choose their provider, thus driving innovations that comes with responsiveness to the client.

Appropriately, 85% of the promised new VA funds are in health care, which constitutes recognition of the complicated nature of the problems that need attention. Yet this health care, and other supportive services, need to accompany transitional and supportive housing where expenses are high and financial resources narrow. Thus as federal, local and non profits energetically address this difficult issue, unlocking value and innovation will require not just more money, but better ways to spend it in order to drive critical outcomes for those who need help.

State officials can use other federal resources as well to address some of the underlying problems, such as joblessness. Creative programs can connect returning service men and women to green jobs presenting them with new opportunities. For example recently Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter announced that a new organization, Veterans Green Jobs http://veteransgreenjobs.org/, was selected by the state energy office to provide weatherization services to income-qualified households in a six-county region of the San Luis Valley.

Yet as we focus on vets, and the troubling issues some have upon return, we should also spend time celebrating how these men and women who served us so well can continue serving in their communities. "Better faster cheaper" can often be accomplished by into tapping civic spirit. This Veterans Day, Mary McNaught Yonkman speaking at a ceremony celebrated by the First Lady, emphasized that 90% of returning service men and women believe that Americans can learn something from their example of service. Yet most veterans have never been contacted by a community institution. The report she and John Bridgeland released, titled "All Volunteer Force, From Military to Civilian Service" allvolunteerforce@civicenterprises.net suggests action steps for governors and mayors who can help match vets with service opportunities. This huge reservoir of community talent awaits the mechanisms to connect returning veterans to others in the community who need help.

As we celebrate Veterans Day, we can also celebrate creative ways public officials can help those returning from the military and the communities in which they live.

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