A group of military veterans gathers for a meal at Vets Returning Home, a facility located in Roseville that provides food, services and other amenities to local vets.

A group of military veterans gathers for a meal at Vets Returning Home, a facility located in Roseville that provides food, services and other amenities to local vets.

Photo provided by Vets Returning Home


Veterans continue to navigate a post-military existence

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published November 6, 2019

 The nonprofit organization has housed over 1,400 vets on the premises and assisted about 250 more in other ways.

The nonprofit organization has housed over 1,400 vets on the premises and assisted about 250 more in other ways.

Photo provided by Vets Returning Home

METRO DETROIT — The plight of the American military veteran is all too real. Now, they and others are standing up for veterans.

 

‘They’re still broken’
After a relatively successful two-decade career in the credit card processing business, Sandy Bower decided to retire early and purchase an old Detroit Red Cross building on the northeast corner of 11 Mile Road and Gratiot Avenue in Roseville.

Now known as Vets Returning Home, it is a nonprofit and non-government-funded organization that provides stability for vets in distress.

Bower, who was once homeless herself, said she isn’t wealthy, but she’s made her fair share. She felt it imperative to do something more meaningful and fulfilling with her life.

“Once realizing the trouble that our veterans are in, I knew that’s what I needed to do,” Bower said. “After the sacrifices these guys make to this country, it’s unacceptable that our vets are going through this many difficulties and faced with these challenges.”

The building was purchased on Aug. 1, 2013. Boasting more than 1,100 square feet and 43 beds, it has housed over 1,400 vets on the premises and assisted probably 250 more through food pantries, furniture donations and homelessness prevention.

As someone who has always been involved in charity work, Bower sees herself as a “problem solver.” About seven or eight daily volunteers serve over 800 weekly meals at the facility, as well as 30 pots of coffee.

People find out through referrals, churches, police departments or word of mouth. The only qualifications are that vets pass drug and alcohol screenings, and have not committed violent crimes or sex crimes. There is no financial threshold to be met.

Veterans ages 22-92 have walked through Bower’s doors. Younger vets seek guidance and structure; older vets, like those who served in Vietnam, are still dealing with the same issues they faced 50 years ago.

“They get home from the military, they’re entitled to benefits, they fall through the cracks and give up,” Bower said. “They’re still broken, and the next thing you know they’re in crisis.

“It’s getting better, but the biggest problem is cutting through the Veterans Affairs programs — getting through and connected to the programs. We have billions of dollars of our taxpayer monies set aside for our veterans programs. They’re just difficult, sometimes, for our veterans to connect with.”

In the 2017 fiscal year, the state of Michigan ranked 47th for the percentage of vets receiving disability compensation, at 18%, and 48th for the percentage of vets who had enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care system, at 39%.

As of 2017, Macomb County’s veteran population totaled approximately 47,944. Those vets received more than $175 million in Department of Veterans Affairs compensation and pension benefits. Oakland County had 57,980 veterans, and they received $188 million in VA compensation and pension benefits. Both numbers were behind Wayne County, which had 87,236 veterans and distributed $292 million in VA benefits.

Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency Director Zaneta Adams, who is a disabled veteran, was appointed to her position in June by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She has promulgated an aggressive outreach campaign in the months since, raising awareness on behalf of her agency and its services — as well as giving vets a louder voice.

Adams said the problem of the lackluster statistics statewide is twofold: First, many vets are not aware of the fact that benefits are readily available; and secondly, communication has been substandard, and vets aren’t being led in the right direction.

Each state faces its own unique set of circumstances, she added.

“Part of what we’re doing at the agency is making sure we are putting the benefits and information (to) the veterans, face to face,” she said.

There are a host of qualifications that make vets eligible for benefits, including military injuries or providing proof that they served in active duty without being dishonorably discharged.

New technology has left many vets in the dark. Adams said “you’d be really surprised” at how many Vietnam-era vets aren’t even aware that they qualify for benefits. Post-9/11 service members seem to be more aware of benefits.

For Vietnam vets, Adams said, state outreach aims to simultaneously thank those vets for their service while showing them they are valued members of society.

“You see, Vietnam vets didn’t feel valued when they came back home, so why should they feel valued now?” she said.

Part of the MVAA’s outreach campaign includes statewide “listening sessions” for the first time ever. Sessions started Oct. 25 and will conclude Nov. 19, spanning 13 communities — including Detroit, Grand Rapids, Saginaw and Kalamazoo, as well as Bloomfield Township and Warren, which will be the sites of sessions Nov. 14.

Strategic planning dissected areas with higher vet populations and how they meshed with where federal dollars were allocated. Some populations were found to contain many vets who weren’t receiving any benefits. Some vets don’t qualify, while others were maybe never made aware that they qualify.

Going out to meet people is a genuine way to understand veterans’ struggles, Adams said, as opposed to sitting in an office in Lansing. So far, the majority of vets in attendance are ones who served in Vietnam.

“It’s disheartening, but goes to show why we’re getting out there talking to them,” Adams said. “The more we talk, the more we spread that message. Word of mouth is huge. Veterans talk to other veterans and trust other veterans.”


Long-term viability in employment
Todd Butler is the administrative manager for the Michigan Workforce Agency. He helps find careers for vets through Jobs for Veterans state grants — which provide federal funding to limit vets’ barriers to employment while finding a profession that fits them. The program has been around since the 1940s.

Between July 1, 2018, and June 30, 2019, about 1,100 vets walked through the agency’s doors. From July to September of this year, that number was about 688 — which exceeds numbers from the same span in 2018.

Butler manages vets’ cases on a one-on-one basis, with the concept of “veterans helping veterans.” Case managers have witnessed less foot traffic in recent months.

“That’s a positive statement,” Butler said. “As unemployment drops, so does the need for those intensive one-on-one services. We get fewer referrals to our staff.”

It’s also due to vets leaving the military with better education than ever before, which lends itself to employment consistency.

The U.S. Department of Labor defines “significant barriers to employment,” including aspects like long-term unemployment, homelessness, being an ex-offender, or having a disability rating as documented by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Age has never really been a demographic that we track real closely because anybody, regardless of age or when they served, could have one of those barriers,” Butler said.

The goal is to find long-term employment, although the Michigan Workforce Agency will help vets land a “gap job” that adds supplemental income while long-term options are sought.

Typically, case files are closed pending successful employment outcomes, to be followed up with a check-in after six months.

“Unless something happens in life where they find themselves unemployed or find a barrier in place, they don’t typically engage our services again,” Butler said.