Navigators ferret out help for veterans

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As featured in the Denton Record-Chronicle, Nov. 27, 2016

One Vietnam veteran in Denton County recently learned he’s eligible for Veterans Affairs benefits, despite being told 40 years ago he didn’t serve long enough to qualify.

If his son, who also served in the military, hadn’t enrolled in a veterans assistance program through the United Way of Denton County, neither of them would’ve discovered what they’re entitled to.

Their family is one of 90 cases that have already benefited through United Way, together with fellow local activists, thanks to the Texas Veterans + Family Alliance Grant (TV+FA) worth $175,000 they received in June.

The grant’s stipulations included matching the $175,000 amount dollar-for-dollar, so $350,000 total has been allocated between United Way and its partners to help local veterans plug into what their service has earned them.

Through the program, social workers help connect veterans to rent assistance, therapy programs and whatever else they can unearth for their benefit.

“One of the biggest barriers for getting veterans services has been a hesitancy to try and navigate the system,” said Alex Reed, community impact director for United Way. “If they’re hit with voicemail or never speak with another voice, they probably won’t reach out again. Our team has provided a face and truly immersed themselves within the community.”

Two case managers with United Way, dubbed “veteran community navigators,” answer referrals from the Denton County Veterans Coalition and other collaborative partners.

Reed said a key advantage of the TV+FA program is that the case managers are allowed to enable welfare improvement with not only veterans, but also their families. Spouses who have suffered secondary trauma and children who may feel detached from parents fall under the umbrella the case managers have spanned for the veteran community.

“[The program] allows [us] to address the emotional needs of whoever is surrounded by a veteran,” Reed said. “It’s a more holistic approach to serve the family unit versus one individual.”

The grant also requires that 200 veterans must be helped within one year. Nearly half of that number has already been met since applications opened on Aug. 22, and partners don’t see demand slowing down.

The Denton County Veterans Coalition estimates that about 36,000 veterans reside in Denton County. Chris Martin, president of the coalition and a collaborative partner in the TV+FA program, said that altogether, an anticipated 360 cases will be addressed through the program by next August.

“I think as word continues to spread about the program, the more attention it will attract,” Martin said. “We’re not going to be overwhelmed, but case managers will keep their hands busy.”

An organized, regulated program has been a long time coming for Denton County, according to Martin. Those at United Way said obtaining the grant was largely spearheaded by the county Veterans Coalition.

Prior to the TV+FA program, Martin often encountered veterans who had needs beyond VA benefits. Though he rallied a team of volunteers to assist these veterans, a general lack of knowledge about available resources failed to help them to the extent the grant has now made possible.

The city of Denton also received 10 vouchers through the state, which provide rental assistance for homeless veterans and clinical services through the VA. The vouchers are one potential resource for veterans in the TV+FA program.

Though all 10 vouchers have already been granted to veterans, Martin said the coalition and city officials anticipate another 10 will be on the way. Such demand has the coalition, United Way and fellow partners speculating ways to continue this program beyond the funds of the grant they received in June.

Nevertheless, the program that began in August is the first step in mobilizing veterans and all their specific circumstances into resources that will improve their welfare, said Courtney Cross, the community impact coordinator for United Way.

“The program is truly collaborative because it acts as a liaison between different groups within the community,” she said.

To her and fellow partners, the beauty of the program is in its simplicity: the ability for all involved to be a catalyst toward improved veteran welfare.

“One of the main assets of this program is that it doesn’t reinvent the service wheel,” Cross said. “We utilize the services already in the community, but hopefully do an exceptional job of getting veterans involved into them.”

For more information, visit UnitedWayDenton.org/Veterans or contact Alex Reed at Alex@UnitedWayDenton.org.

MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845 and via Twitter at @MattePaper.