Returning Veteran Initiative, Houston, TX

Houston, TX (population 1,593,227)

Project type: Public/Private Community Response

Project contact: Buddy Grantham, Director of Veterans’ Affairs, cohova@houstontx.gov

The City of Houston and the surrounding five counties are home to nearly 370,000 veterans, almost one in four of all veterans living in Texas. An estimated 22,000 of these men and women are veterans of the wars in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom), one of the largest populations of OEF/OIF veterans in the country.

In early 2007, the need to coordinate services to better serve returning veterans became a cause of concern for area leaders, including former Houston Mayor Bill White and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. To begin a conversation about what could be done, leaders from the military, faith-based community, non-profits, educational institutions, service organizations, and all levels of government convened to hear directly from returning soldiers, as well as experts and other concerned parties.

After holding a summit to discuss the issues in the summer of 2007, four committees were developed to address specific issues: the Logistics of Living Committee; the Interaction with Public Assistance Committee; the Education and Career Committee; and the Mentoring Committee. While the group initially focused their attention on the needs of OEF/OIF returning veterans, they have subsequently defined nine additional constituency groups in an effort to better meet the needs of particular segments of the veteran community. These other constituency groups include disabled veterans; active military/guard and reserves; women veterans; military children and family members; post Korean/pre-retirement veterans; post retirement veterans; homeless veterans; ex-offender veterans; and ROTC/local university students.

At a second convening later in 2007, committees reported on their findings of existing gaps in service and laid out next steps toward resolving them. One of the initial needs identified was a one-stop location of information. To support the development of a Veterans Resource Directory, Judge Emmett assigned members of his staff to coordinate with committee members and other community service providers, detailing services available to all veterans. The directory was unveiled in November 2007 and lists hundreds of governmental, nonprofit, and faith-based organizations that provide housing, financial, legal, educational, transportation, employment, health care, and other services. Veterans, their families, employers and counselors can now obtain the printed resource directory, including a foldout wallet-sized version, both in hard copy from the City and County Veteran Service Offices, and online at City and County websites.

In October 2007, the City of Houston’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs opened. The mission of the office is to assist all veterans through advocacy, referral, and counseling, and to ensure that neither they, nor their family members are denied access to benefits. The office works in cooperation with the Harris County Veteran's Services Officer (VSO), as well as other veteran service organizations, and community partners.

While some of the initial service gaps have been met, the work of the committees continues as part of the city’s Returning Veterans Initiative (RVI). For example, the Interaction with Public Assistance Committee secured private funding for an online need assessment survey that was sent to all veterans discharged in the last five years with a Harris County zip code. The RVI is working to gather the data and compare findings against existing services to fill any remaining gaps.

The Logistics of Living Committee has found that there are programs in place to provide transportation and housing modifications for veterans. However, they have also concluded that local initiatives to develop affordable housing for the public in general are critical to ensuring that housing is available for veterans. In addition, many veterans continue to report that many doctors and medical offices do not accept the military’s health insurance, Tricare. To help overcome this, leaders from Baylor College of Medicine and the local VA Medical Center are making presentations to area medical groups in an effort to increase Tricare acceptance.

The Education and Career Committee found that many organizations assisting veterans with job placement and training are not well-organized or well-known. The group has partnered with the Texas Veterans Commission and a regional human resource company to create and improve local job fairs to increase employment opportunities. In November 2010, the City of Houston implemented a hiring preference for veterans.

In addition, the RVI has a series of coordinated programs and events to better meet the needs veterans and their families. To help with housing issues, the RVI is supporting non-profits that build customized housing for disabled and low-income veterans by helping direct locally administered VA and HUD dollars from programs such as the Community Development Block Grant, the Continuum of Care, and Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.

To help veterans use their GI Bill benefits, RVI members held a GI Bill Workshop with experts from the VA to better educate local college and university administrators on how the process works. In addition, the RVI has helped create veteran service offices at every campus in the Houston area. As a result, enrollment has more than tripled at most campuses and veterans are also helped by being educated on other benefits available to veterans and referred for assistance.

To ensure on-going responsiveness to the changing needs of veterans and their families, the RVI has an OEF/OIF Community Council made up of active and former OEF/OIF veterans who currently either work or volunteer in transition assistance to provide expert advice.

As a result of municipal leadership, veteran inclusion, cross-jurisdictional collaboration, and multi-sector engagement the work of the City of Houston and the surrounding area has been recognized by the Department of Defense and the Department of the Army was a national best-practice. Through city-led coordination, the community identified the services that were in place and the gaps that needed to be filled in order to better meet the needs of all veterans and their families.