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Homeless veterans to move into Chicopee’s Chapin School this summer

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CHICOPEE – Renovations inside and outside of the former Chapin School are progressing and officials are hoping formerly homeless veterans will be able to move in this summer.

“Construction is underway and we are looking for a late June completion,” Gary Shepard, president of Soldier On, said.

Soldier On, a Western Massachusetts Agency which provides a wide variety of services for veterans needing help, announced in 2012 that it planned to purchase the old school, located in a triangle-shaped piece of land between Meadow and Chicopee streets, and convert it into housing for homeless veterans.

After years of work to get grants, loans and tax credits, to fund the about $10.5 million renovation, construction began about a year ago, said Joanne Beauregard, controller for Daniel O’Connell and Sons, which has partnered with Soldier On for the project.

The renovations and purchase of the property is being funded with tax credits and different grants so the complex will not have a mortgage when it is completed, she said.

The classrooms in the school are being converted into 43 one-bedroom units which will each have a kitchenette and bathroom. Each unit measures about 500 square feet, Beauregard said.

“We are in the process of identifying veterans who are eligible for the units,” she said. “Everyone who qualifies was once homeless and is in temporary housing.”

The complex will be run similar to a co-op. Veterans initially pay $2,500 to buy a share in the building and each will pay a monthly rent that that is set under the Housing and Urban Development guidelines for low-income residents.

The money earned through rent is put into an account to pay utilities, property taxes, maintenance costs and other expenses for the building, she said.

Most of the veterans have some type of military benefits or other benefits and are eligible for housing subsidies so they can pay rent. Some also work, Beauregard said.


Soldier On
has a number of similar housing complexes in Western Massachusetts and other locations, including one in Northampton and one under construction in Agawam.

The former Chapin School was considered an attractive location for veterans’ housing, in part because it is already on a bus line and across the street from Rivers Park.

“We are happy to see a vacant building coming back into use,” she said.

The building was originally an elementary school but in 2003 it was closed as a neighborhood school and used for an alternative school. It has been closed since Chicopee Academy moved to a different location in 2005.

Some work, especially on landscaping, will probably continue after residents move into the apartments. Plans call for some of the blacktop that surrounds the building to be removed and replaced with plantings to make it more attractive, she said.

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Berkshire Eagle : BRTA delivers tons of donated food, items for veterans at Soldier On

PITTSFIELD — Looking at several thousand pounds of locally donated food headed for regional Soldier On facilities on Wednesday, Jason Stump saw the future.

“That saffron tea will make excellent seasoning for chicken,” said Stump, head chef at the Pittsfield facility. “Cannellini beans are always a good addition to salads. Saltine crackers will be perfect for the crab cakes I make. I see all the ingredients for a good beef stew.”

Donated by Berkshires residents, the food had been collected — along with other items like clothing, toiletries, greeting cards, notebooks and much more — by Berkshire Regional Transit Authority and stored at BRTA’s headquarters on Downing Industrial Parkway.

Stump and roughly 10 veterans packed the food in boxes, loading the boxes into trucks, and driving the vehicles to the Soldier On apartment complex on West Housatonic Street. Within the next few days, some of it would be sent along to Soldier On’s Leeds facility to help veterans coming in off the streets.

“It’s keeping us busy on a nice day,” said Ben Hamilton, an Air Force veteran, as he packed boxes. “Last week, we went down to the Second Congregational Church and helped out making food at the food bank. We helped out the people of Pittsfield, gave back. This week, we’re being taken care of ourselves. And, believe me, a lot of people need some of this stuff.”

The drive was now in its fifth year as a benefit for Soldier On. Initially, it was organized to fund gifts to underprivileged children, but former BRTA Director Gary A. Shepard, now Soldier On’s president and CEO, converted the fundraiser to highlight another population in need.

In addition to the gift collection, BRTA donates two weeks’ worth of local bus revenue to the organization, which in 2015 amounted to 1,223 rides, or several thousand dollars.

“It’s a small price to pay,” said Tami Larimore, BRTA’s director of administration. “A lot of [veterans] come back broken. Some of us take for granted what we have every day — flushing toilets, hot showers, food in our cupboards, the blessings of a car to drive and a job to go to.”

She added, “A minority of us require medication to get through the day, not most of us. Few of us have serious physical ailments. This is a small way to say ‘thank you.’ We can’t make up for what you brought back with you, but we can show our appreciation.”

Shepard spoke about Soldier On’s national progress at BRTA — progress that has been helped along by numerous acts of charity like the one celebrated Wednesday.

He said 50,000 American veterans suffer homelessness in the United States — about 5,000 of them women — and another 1.4 million are living paycheck to paycheck and could lose housing anytime.

“We’re very proud of the partnership we have with BRTA,” Shepard said. “We recognize that one of the barriers for veterans getting supportive services and medical appointments they need, for employment, for education — for getting generally reintegrated into the community — is transportation. It’s a major barrier. A lot of our veterans do not have cars, and they need to get around. Working with BRTA is a real value-added component.”

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.

 

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Soldier On Featured in MassLive

Soldier On opens new facility for homeless female veterans in Northampton

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Navy veteran Cynthia Stevens (Fred Contrada)

By Fred Contrada | fcontrada@repub.com
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on December 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM, updated December 16, 2015 at 10:04 AM

NORTHAMPTON – Cynthia Stevens sat and took a break while the workmen around her hauled sheetrock and the women examined the premises. Soldier On was in the process of opening its new transitional housing facility for homeless female veterans.

The new, 16-apartment complex on the VA’s Leeds campus was something most of them weren’t used to: a housing facility especially for women. May we add, for women veterans.

Half the 500 homeless shelters run by the VA don’t accept women at all, and few are specifically tailored to them. Many of the shelters that do take women lack separate quarters from the men.

Stevens, a Navy veterans, was moving out, not in. Many of the vacancies in the new facility were being filled by women living in renovated cottages at the VA. If this was a step up from that, Stevens apartment in Westfield was two. It will be a place her four grown children can visit. A place of her own.

Men's shelter under construction, as seen from the women's facility. Fred Contrada / The Republican

Men’s shelter under construction, as seen from the women’s facility.                                              Fred Contrada / The Republican

“I get along with all the women here,” she said. “We’re one big happy family.”

If you look out one of the windows you can see the construction underway on the 44 unit men’s facility up the hill. Although they’re close by, men are out of bounds on the women’s facility. Stevens is okay with this.

“There’s too much chaos if men are involved,” said Stevenes, who receives treatment for her PTSD.

The women’s shelteroffers a range of services and programs, from mental health therapy and treatment to counseling, educational programs and employment opportunities. All run by women and serve to support the veterans, many whom have been victimized by military sexual trauma.

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Sara Scoco, director of women’s programs.      Fred Contrada / The Republican

Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s programs, said the goal is to treat the body, mind and spirit together Women also work on substance abuse problems and self esteem. Among the programs offfered are yoga, writing groups and walking clubs. “Everything is run by women for women,” Scoco said. “A house care takes them to their appointments.”

John Downing, the CEO of Soldier On, the men’s homeless shelter at the VA, said the women’s facility cost $1.8 million to build, with much of the money coming from federal andstate sources.

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Boston Globe: A fresh start for homeless women veterans in Northampton

NORTHAMPTON — Jane Geary struggled up two flights of stairs with full shopping bags and clothes hangers dangling from her overloaded fingers. It was moving day, a wonderful day, a day unlike any Geary had known.

The 55-year-old Navy veteran does not have a home of her own. But Tuesday, Geary and 11 other women embarked on a bright, promising chapter in their lives as they moved into a new residence for homeless women veterans.

“Crazy, crazy, crazy,” Geary said, shaking her head and breaking into a smile at the wonder of it.

She and the other women now have individual apartments in a bright, sparkling residence as part of a program run by Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization.

For these women, part of the wonder is that someone cares at all. Most suffered sexual abuse in the military, and Geary, a former nurse who once lived in Gardner, also deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I never felt like I fit in anywhere,” Geary said. “Here, it’s a different story.”

That story will unfold in a $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet that contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

‘I never felt like I fit in anywhere. Here, it’s a different story.’
Jane Geary, talking about moving in to her Soldier On apartment

“This is a safe place to be. They make sure of that,” said Geary, who became homeless after her husband died and she struggled with drugs and alcohol. “They love you until you can love yourself, and that’s very new to me.”

It’s a place designed for women and run by women, where men can enter only by invitation. Soldier On is one of a limited number of residences for homeless women veterans in the state, but the three-story residence is the latest effort to meet a growing need as more women join the military.

Kathy Copeland, a 47-year-old Navy veteran, said she is still in disbelief over her new apartment. “When I look at it, I say to myself, ‘Wow, that’s for us.’ ”

Women made up 9 percent of homeless veterans this year, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. That percentage, encompassing more than 4,000 women, tracks closely with their representation in the armed forces, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

But women veterans, for reasons that are unclear, are slightly more likely to become homeless than their male counterparts, said Randy Brown, spokesman for the nonprofit coalition.

“Women come to us incredibly broken,” said Sara Scoco, the women’s program director for Soldier On.

When the women arrived at a previous Soldier On facility, some did not speak because of their trauma. Others cried for weeks.

“All of our women experienced trauma before the military — childhood abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse,” Scoco said. “Many of them went into the military to escape trauma and were re-traumatized instead.”

The program is located on the campus of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center and parallels a Soldier On effort that serves 265 homeless male veterans here and in Pittsfield. The women’s services, however, carry a distinct imprint.

There are cooking classes, art instruction, and beadwork — all part of a holistic strategy to meet the mental, emotional, physical, and intellectual needs of a vulnerable, traumatized group.

“Many of these women don’t realize what their strengths are,” Scoco said.

Low self-esteem and nagging fear sapped much of that strength. But with mental-health counseling, volunteer work in the community, and opportunities for schooling and employment, those strengths are being rediscovered and nurtured, Scoco said.

“I’m learning what it’s like to not be a victim,” said LouAnn Hazelwood, a 60-year-old Army veteran who is the oldest woman in the program. The youngest is 26, and only one day of active-duty service is required for eligibility.

More than 1,500 women have been helped since the program began in 2005, said Jack Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On. Per-diem payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs meet some of the program’s expenses; up to 30 percent of a resident’s income, if there is any, helps meet others. Donations and grants make up the rest.

When the program began, women were placed in the same building as men on the VA campus. Later, the women moved separately to two aging cottages that once housed doctors who worked at the hospital.

But now, set on a slope and surrounded by greenery, the women have a semi-secluded place of their own.

Downing said the new building has been designed to accommodate homeless women veterans with children. That’s an uncommon pairing, Downing said, because many women remain in abusive relationships to protect their children from homelessness.

No children are living at Soldier On now, but a flexible design will allow apartments to be reconfigured when needed, Downing said.

On Monday evening, Geary anxiously awaited the move-in the morning. Boxes had been packed, clothing had been sorted, and a promising chapter in a difficult journey lay only hours ahead.

But first there was a treat.

A women’s group had invited Geary and the other veterans to a country club for dinner and a dance, and Geary wanted to look special. For this, she donned a dress and a necklace.

“I don’t wear a dress too often,” Geary said, a small smile creasing her face. “And this is an opportunity to put one on.”

For Geary, the night out represented another small checkpoint on the road to stability. It’s a long journey, Geary acknowledged, but it’s one she wants to see through.

“There’s more that I need to work on, so that I don’t have to come back when I leave here,” she said. “I want to be a success.”
The $1.7 million building of nearly 9,000 square feet contains 16 individual apartments, four shared kitchens, plus space for activities as varied as group meetings, yoga, and artwork.

-By Globe Reporter Brian MacQuarrie

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WWLP- Homeless Women Get a New Lease on Life

 

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. (WWLP) – A home for the holidays. Homeless women veterans living in Western Massachusetts got the help they need to heal from serious trauma.

“We should not have any veteran living on the street,” said homeless women veteran Kathy Copeland. But about 50,000 veterans do live on the street, each night. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, 1.4 million veterans and their families are at risk of becoming homeless. It’s enough to make Copeland cry. “These are people signing a blank check up to, and including, our lives for this country. And then to come back and not have the assets available to us,” she said.

Tuesday, however, she was crying tears of joy. She was getting a new home and a new lease on life. Kathy and 11 other homeless women veterans had shared an old home on the campus of the Central Western Massachusetts Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The home was leased out by Soldier On, a veteran’s advocacy group. With the help of former homeless veterans, family and friends, they moved across campus Tuesday to a new home for 16 women, with much more to offer. The nearly 3.5 million dollar facility is fully funded by you, the taxpayer.

This facility and all its programs are run completely by women for women. There will soon be a yoga center, and next to it, an arts and crafts room. It’s all to help these women veterans recover and heal from the physical and emotional trauma they’ve experienced.

“Our women have really been traumatized in every way, shape and form. Over 80 percent of our women have experienced military sexual trauma and 100 percent were traumatized before they went into the military,” said Soldier On Women’s Program Director Sara Scoco. She said there’s a waiting list for Soldier On’s services, showing just how many homeless veterans are in need living in Western Massachusetts.

“We have a lot of work to do, miles to go before we sleep,” said Soldier On President and CEO Gary Shepard.

A permanent home isn’t just a roof and four walls: It’s also a place to feel safe emotionally and physically. That’s really what this new transitional home provides our veterans.

-By WWLP Reporter Kait Walsh

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Fox News features Soldier On’s CEO John F. Downing in Veteran editorial

A report issued a few days ago by Senators John Flake and John McCain found that the Pentagon has spent nearly $7 million to pay for patriotic displays during the games of professional sports teams.

Since 2012, the Pentagon entered into 72 contracts with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and Major League Soccer just so that veterans and members of the military could be “honored” in front of large crowds by throwing out the first pitch, unfurling giant flags across stadium turfs, and singing “God Bless America.”

This “paid patriotism” is a revolting affront to all of those who have donned the uniforms of our country’s Armed Services and fought to preserve the freedoms and ideals we enjoy and cherish.

It is also a repulsive insult to all of us taxpayers; it’s our dollars that have gone into footing the bill for what amounts to nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to enrich the coffers of the already super rich sports franchises.

It comes as no surprise that holidays such as Veterans Day, which was created nearly 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson to celebrate the heroism of our troops who fought in World War I, are now more about celebrating huge discounts at the local mall and days off from work and school.

At the same time, such wanton capitalism is indicative of a much wider societal problem impacting our military and veterans communities. Indeed, there is a near total disconnect between the safe and secure lives we lead as civilians and the unsafe and insecure lives led by the men and women of our nation’s military. Consider that less than one percent of our population currently serves in the Armed Forces compared to more than 12 percent during World War II. Moreover, only 5 percent of us have a direct connection to someone currently in the military.

It comes as no surprise therefore how holidays such as Veterans Day, which was created nearly 100 years ago by President Woodrow Wilson to celebrate the heroism of our troops who fought in World War I, are more about celebrating huge discounts at the local mall and days off from work and school.

Think about all those corporations and retailers big and small that fly the American flag to demonstrate their patriotism on Veterans Day. Not nearly enough of them actually demonstrate this patriotism in the most tangible ways, by providing both financial and human capital on the ground.

Think about how many companies that run massive advertising campaigns touting Veterans Day sales actually donate a percentage of proceeds from those sales to veteran service organizations?

Think about how many companies that proudly proclaim that they hire veterans actually provide these men and women with meaningful, rather than menial, employment?

According to the findings of a 2014 member survey by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America organization, about one-third said that their current position was inappropriate given their level of education and experience. Other studies have found that that veterans’ under-employment is as high as 26% more than non-veterans.

Now think about the fact that, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there are almost 50,000 veterans who are homeless and 1.4 million at-risk of becoming homeless due to poverty, lack of support networks, and substandard living conditions each and every day in America.

A highly significant number of these veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, while nearly 50 percent of the homeless veteran population experiences mental health issues. These are veterans who put on a uniform and swore they would die for us. Many of them have returned from the battlefield, but never really truly returned from battle.

They have endured the sleepless nights and harrowing experiences of homelessness and have lost touch with their families, finding their solace in drugs and alcohol and, statistics show, spending nine times the length of their deployment homeless.

Perhaps the most fragile of our at-risk veteran population is women. Estimates go as high as 10,000 women veterans on the street on any given night.

The primary issue our nation’s daughters report upon their return home is PTSD, and due to physiological and psychological differences in the sexes, our VA is not equipped to properly treat these women.

Only slightly more than half of the 500 VA-run homeless shelters accept women and few, if any, accept children.

Very few programs are specifically tailored to female veterans and they typically lack separate quarters from men.

Importantly, some 31 percent of VA medical centers aren’t able or equipped to provide necessary services for military sexual trauma, which one out of every five women veterans experience.

Through the efforts of the Veterans Administration in partnership with HUD and other government entities and non-government organizations nationwide, including Soldier On, where I serve as CEO, veteran homelessness has decreased by more than 33 percent since 2010. A number of major cities, including Houston, New Orleans, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and New York have announced they have achieved or will achieve “functional zero” on their homeless veteran population by the New Year.

We have been able to attain success thus far through a continuum of care process that integrates the resources of federal programs with a network of local and state agencies committed to the same goal.

The HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) has served over 90,000 veterans since the program’s inception, providing housing and other services for the most vulnerable, chronically homeless, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

The VA’s Grant Per Diem program, which supports transitional housing for homeless veterans and literally takes them off the streets, served about 45,000 veterans in 2014 with another 45,000 expected to benefit in 2015. These programs have been effective in reaching homeless veterans and placing them on the road to reclaiming their dignity and lives.

Soldier On is the largest provider in the country of another largely effective program funded by the VA, Supportive Service for Veteran Families (SSVF), which has made a profound difference in ensuring that homeless and at-risk veterans and their families have access to the resources they need to successfully transition to permanent housing.

Our SSVF program encompasses rapid-rehousing along with an array of services, including temporary financial assistance, employment and benefit counseling, case management, and transportation.

Our success with the SSVF program — which we now operate in five states, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi — is largely due to a real-time delivery model in which we maintain a fleet of vehicles fully equipped with computers and other communications technology that allows us to reach a veteran or veteran-at-risk in a matter of hours.

Our program is also reinforced by our interconnection with state and local agencies, which assist in providing housing, employment, and other vital services for the veterans.

But relying upon federal funding can be a tricky venture, and the government can’t do it alone. There still needs to be a comprehensive strategy to not only sustain current activities but also to meet the challenges of the future in meeting the ultimate goal of ending veteran homelessness.

The VA needs to fully partner with academic medical centers, research universities and boots-on-the-ground nonprofits engaging these forgotten veterans and servicing them in an all-inclusive way that treats them as dynamic human beings deserving of dignity and respect.

Mental health services, substance-abuse treatment, case management, peer support, medical and dental treatment, legal assistance employment, and educational services should all be part of a matrix of supportive services enveloping the whole individual.

And I would argue that America’s business community needs to be an active partner in all efforts. We can start by having all those sports teams that have greatly benefited from the “generosity” of the Pentagon re-allocate these ill-gotten gains for the benefit of our homeless veterans.

We have reached a watershed moment in our history, one in which we have the awareness, technology, the means, and the determination to end veterans homelessness. This Veterans Day, as we celebrate and honor those who have served our country with parades and other programs, it is imperative that we look beyond the pomp and pageantry to treat our homeless veterans. We can’t drop the ball now.

John F. Downing is chief executive officer of Soldier On, the largest provider of housing and services to homeless veterans east of the Mississippi and the largest provider of Supportive Services for Veteran Families in the country.

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Soldier On Receives $300,000 To Provide Services For Formerly Incarcerated Veterans

The federal Department of Labor has awarded a $300,000 grant to Soldier On to provide employment and housing services to formerly incarcerated veterans in Eastern New York and Western Massachusetts.

DOL announced the award as part of $1.8 million in grants it funded nationally under its Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program, which targets those veterans considered at risk of becoming homeless.

“Everyone deserves a second chance, especially the men and women who have sacrificed for our country,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “The Incarcerated Veterans Transition Program opens doors for veterans who may have struggled but who want to return to America’s workforce.”

Soldier On currently serves 18 counties in Eastern New York and four counties in Western Massachusetts, largely through its Supportive Services for Veteran Families grant program from the Department of Veterans Affairs. It also provides 40 hours of weekly programming at the Albany (NY) County Correctional Facility aimed at reducing recidivism and preparing veterans to assimilate back into society.  The DOL grant will enhance services to these veterans and others who are released from imprisonment and who are located in Eastern New York and Western Massachusetts.

Soldier On initiated its incarcerated veterans program at the Albany jail in October 2014 in collaboration with Sheriff Craig D. Apple.  Programming includes instruction in appropriate disciplines, such as anger management, physical and mental health, substance abuse, self-discipline, and social skills.

“This DOL grant will allow Soldier On, the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, and our outreach team in Western Massachusetts and Eastern New York to provide job training, education and job readiness for veterans who are leaving incarceration and returning to life in the community,” said John F. Downing, CEO of Soldier On. “We are grateful to the DOL to allow us to partner with them to serve this special group of veterans with these services.”

“Honoring the sacrifice and service of our nation’s veterans starts with helping them succeed when they return home,” Congressman Jim McGovern (MA-02) said. “With this program, struggling veterans will get the second chance they need as they work to get back on their feet. Giving our veterans the support they need to find a good job and put a roof over their head is the least we can do. This program will make a tremendous difference for veterans in our communities and across the country. I am proud to join Secretary Perez as a partner in this important work and look forward to seeing all the good these grants will do for our veterans.”

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Opinion: Rethinking The Delivery Of Veterans’ Benefits – By John F. Downing

With the Department of Veterans Affairs slowly imploding financially, and burdened with a bloated bureaucracy capable of serving only about one third of our veterans, it is time for new ideas and new systems to ensure all our veterans get the care and benefits they have earned. To accomplish this, access to benefits and health care needs to be improved.

In its struggle to achieve financial stability with a looming $3 billion shortfall, the VA has been shifting funds and cutting back on expenses while warning Congress that the demand for services will continue to climb as it has during the past year. Much of the increased demand is being driven by the cost of outside doctors, which veterans can now choose to see through the new “”Veterans Choice Program” if they cannot get a VA appointment within 30 days.

Accordingly, the VA says its waiting lists of one month or more have increased by 50 percent over the last year when the problems plaguing the agency first came to light. The VA has hired more doctors and nurses and expanded access to care, but the number of veterans seeking care has multiplied beyond expectations.

We are seeing that throwing taxpayer funds at an agency with a bloated bureaucracy won’t work. I believe we have to simplify the process and work together with the VA and other agencies in easing access to benefits and health care so that we can reach 100 percent of our veterans. One solution is a computerized benefit card that allows every veteran to have all benefits and health needs listed in one account.

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At Soldier On, when a case manager goes out into the community to meet with a homeless veteran, one of the first things they do to begin the road to permanent housing is to ensure that the veteran has applied for and is receiving all due benefits. If not, it can be a cumbersome and time-consuming process going agency to agency with the veteran to register. But it needs to be done because it is a necessary step to ensure that our veterans are able to get the services they need so they can get back on their feet for good.

With an automated benefit card, every veteran who files with the Internal Revenue Service would receive one identification card listing all the veteran’s benefits and medical needs, whether it be pharmaceutical, psych/social, or financial. It would eliminate the need to register for everything, to be at the VA constantly, and to drive to various medical centers and social service agencies. It would also bring consistency and a bit more dignity  to the whole system of medical and financial benefits for veterans.

The beauty of this system is that it allows every veteran to access his or her benefits all day, every day, eliminates embedded barriers, and facilitates the timely deliverance of benefits. Veterans in need of services would receive their needed support promptly, without many of the delays and encumbrances that come with the current system.

When a veteran puts on a uniform, he or she is saying that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for us if necessary. They deserve the best care and attention we can provide.

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