Last updated April 30, 2014
Special thanks to Joe Bello of NY MetroVets
New York City is home to anywhere between 225,000 and 300,000 veterans, the majority of whom fought in Vietnam and the first Gulf War, but with an increasing number of servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In recognition of their service, the federal government, primarily through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), grants returning veterans unparalleled services and programs. However, issues of unemployment, homelessness, mental health, and unfulfilled compensation for war-time injuries continue to plague the veteran community.
Veterans throughout the five boroughs experience these issues just as their compatriots across the country do; however these problems are compounded here not only because of the current economic instability, but by the high living expenses of the city and bureaucracy within city government.
Housing and Homelessness
On the national level, veterans struggle to find affordable, lost cost housing. The VA estimates that one third of the national homeless population has at some point served in the military. Veterans returning to New York City are especially vulnerable, as they are forced to find housing in the city’s notoriously tight real estate market and are frequently left with limited affordable housing options. For example, a veteran can apply for housing with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), yet there are 227,000 individuals and families currently on the waiting list for Housing Authority apartments with an estimated 5,400 to 5,800 that open annually.
While the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) has difficulty collecting the exact number of homeless veterans, it is estimated that anywhere between 2,000 and 3,500 veterans are homeless in New York City. Veterans’ advocates call for elected officials to proactively address the issue via an increase in affordable housing and better supportive housing.
Finding employment is also a major issue for many veterans, who spent years removed from the city workforce and who usually experience difficulties transitioning upon returning. The unemployment rate among veterans in NYC is consistently higher than the New York State average, especially among younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a group, veterans were particularly hard-hit by the 2008 economic crisis, which increased the already high number of unemployed veterans in New York City by almost 5,000 from 2008 to 2009. Of those that do find work, many are still reduced to poverty. A 2011 study found that 30% of veterans have either contemplated or used food stamps and/or emergency sources of food to feed themselves. Even with the job skills learned in the U.S. military, veterans frequently need assistance transitioning from military service and reintegrating into a labor market that requires different skills and in most cases, a post-secondary degree.
One of the more substantial problems facing veterans today is the often misunderstood and to a large extent, stigmatized issue of mental health. Studies estimate that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects 20% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, while 19% are diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). This issue is also potentially long-term, as four-fifths of Vietnam veterans reported still experiencing some symptoms of PTSD in studies conducted 20-25 years after returning home.
Due to the stigmatization of discussing mental health in the military, the effects of these illnesses on veterans is considered both under-reported and mismanaged. 50% of PTSD sufferers do not seek out treatment, and upwards of 80% believe the treatment administered is “inadequate.” This can contribute to negative perceptions of veterans, which can impact how potential employers view veterans applying and interviewing for jobs.
Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs
In NYC, the main governmental agency that deals with veteran issues is the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA). The office assists in disbursing information on benefits available to veterans, advises the Mayor on policy, and maintains a number of local and federal partnerships to help provide services. It is itself advised by a City Veterans Advisory Board (VAB), individuals from all five boroughs who are appointed by the Mayor and Speaker of the City Council. Both of these bodies have limited mandates, and the VAB in particular suffers from a lack of accountability in both appointments and information on meetings.
Veterans advocates are concerned that the public perceives that it is solely the federal government’s responsibility to provide services to veterans, and therefore, the city has taken a comparatively small role in assisting them. Without more meaningful support on the local level, veterans routinely face waits of longer than 4 months for federal compensation.
In the last few years, the federal government has ramped up its efforts to help veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs has coordinated programs with numerous other agencies to help veterans with finding homes, jobs, and counseling. The VA joined with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to create a special subset of Section 8 known as Veterans Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers, which combine housing subsidies with clinical and logistic support to address unique veteran housing needs. The VA also works with the Department of Labor (DOL) through the federal Veteran Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP); this program provides education, training, and job-placement assistance to older (35 and up), unemployed veterans who are not eligible for a plethora of other benefits.
NYC Partnerships and Legislation
Over the past several years, NYC government has developed partnerships to help veterans in the City. Operation Home Task Force, a partnership between the VA and New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS), addresses veteran homelessness; in 3 years of operation, from 2006 to 2009, it reported a 62% reduction in the number of homeless veterans in the city. Likewise in 2009, the City Council passed Res. No. 2256-A, amending the Mitchell-Lama Housing Program – which grants affordable housing to low-and-middle income families – to give Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ priority access to housing, a privilege already extended to Vietnam veterans.
The inadequacy of State and City agencies in addressing the core issues of veterans has resulted in the proliferation of veteran non-profits and advocacy groups. These organizations have pushed for various initiatives to deal with the problems that veterans face in the City.
Some, with federal and/or philanthropy funding, have worked to establish programs which would address the problem of affordable housing and simultaneously make key services readily available to the veterans that need them. Besides the VA, various veteran service organizations (VSOs) both nationally and locally act as hubs for information on benefits and programs while also providing a sense of community among veterans through either social media and/or local chapters/posts. Various advocacy groups have also appealed to the City Council regarding mental health issues in order to bring attention to the inadequacies of the current system for veterans in the City. Other organizations have formed to help veterans that are going into business or looking for a job, by tapping into the potential of military veterans to network with each other and with service providers that actively seek their skills.
Adequately addressing the issues faced by veterans require taking into account their special needs and circumstances. Policy proposals for addressing these issues have come from many advocacy groups. On the national level, the Independent Budget, which is put out annually by a coalition of nationally recognized veteran’s organizations, offer recommendations concerning federal resources that are necessary to meet the needs of veterans. On the State level, the New York State Health Foundation commissioned an assessment by the RAND Corp. a few years ago that examined the needs of returning veterans and their families and the resources available to support them.
Recently, proposals for additional programs and legislation dealing specifically with veterans in New York City have come from Joe Bello of NY MetroVets, which recently published a recommendations on potential City policies for political office seekers. Among its proposals is a call for the expansion of veterans courts, which deal with matters such as substance abuse and domestic violence related to veterans – with a focus on counseling and clinical intervention over criminal sentencing. Likewise, the briefing paper has called for expanding City contracts with businesses started by returning vets, removing unnecessary tax penalties, and expanding NYCHA’s Housing Assistance for Relocation and Transitional Services (HARTS) to include veterans. Going forward, the City will need to proactively address the issues that veterans living in the five boroughs face. These problems have been recognized by the dozens of advocacy groups and lawmakers that make veteran well-being their business.
Questions To Consider:
1. What can be done by elected officials and city agencies to better address issues of homelessness, unemployment, hunger, and mental health issues among New York City veterans?
2. What can the City itself do on a substantial level to address veteran issues not adequately addressed on a federal level? What role should the City play in making up for shortfalls in benefits, services, and support?
3. How can the City better cooperate with veteran’s advocacy groups and/or state and federal agencies that are active in aiding City veterans?
4. How can existing services and benefits granted by the City be expanded to better accommodate veterans?
Resources for More Information:
NY MetroVets (Veterans’ Issues Awareness Group)
“Down Range and Home Again” (Recommendations on Policy)
The U.S. Servicemember’s Guide to Academic Programs and Aid (Online Colleges.net)
College Guide for U.S. Service Members (AccreditedColleges.com)
“Independent Budget” (Advocacy Group Coalition Budget)
Jericho Project (Veteran Initiative):
Long March Home (Veteran Homelessness Awareness):
“Parity for Patriots” (National Alliance on Mental Illness)
National Center for Veterans Studies (University of Utah)
Ongoing Veterans Research at the National Center for Veterans Studies (University of Utah)
Veteranscorp (Veterans-in-Business Group)