Local Leadership Key to Supporting Veterans, Military Families

by Elisha Harig-Blaine

With more than 1 million veterans returning to communities across the county by 2016, an increasing number of cities face the challenge of breaking down the silos that separate veterans from the services they need and the benefits they have earned. Many veterans and their families call the City of Port Angeles, Wash., home after their years of service, and the city is located near Joint Base Lewis McChord, one of the nation's largest military installations. Because the community has such a large veteran presence, city leaders there have recognized the need to break down these silos.

Like any population, the needs of veterans and their families vary. As a result, finding the best place to begin efforts to better serve veterans can be daunting and overwhelming. In Port Angeles, local leaders have started breaking down silos by aligning their work to support homeless veterans with federal efforts.

Clallum County, the county in which Port Angeles is located, is one of the 360 jurisdictions with a Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness. In June 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) announced the goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. To achieve this goal locally, Clallum County identified partners and laid out specific strategies to address the demand for veteran services. The county's plan emphasizes prevention, prioritizes placing people in permanent supportive housing rather than shelters or transitional housing and expands data collection efforts to ensure resources are used as effectively as possible. Notably, the plan also calls for increased leadership and civic engagement.

There are existing resources that can meet the needs of veterans in virtually all communities, but those who need them often do not know about them. To meet the needs of veterans, a community-wide response is pivotal, and leadership from city leaders can play a key role in improving access to services. Leadership can facilitate engagement from stakeholders that may have not otherwise been involved and leverage public attention.

The stability and assistance veterans and their families need is best ensured when they are not simply given a list of what is available, but are asked what they need and are taken to the right people to help them. Faith communities, veteran and community service organizations, local employers, vocational training facilities, public and private school officials, childcare providers, mental health professionals, hospitals, and court systems are as important as local, state and federal government officials in providing support for our veterans. Communication with base commanders and the leadership of Reserve and National Guard units is also essential. With so many players, local leadership can bring solution-oriented focus and coordination.

There are several on-going efforts to support community-based responses for our veterans. The Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff encourages community service and involvement through its office of Warrior and Family Support. The White House has initiated the Joining Forces effort and partnered with the Points of Light Foundation in supporting the creation of Community Blueprints. All of these efforts encourage the creation of multi-disciplinary and community-led efforts to meet the diverse and changing needs of our nation's most recent veterans, as well as those who served in the past.

To support the creation and implementation of Community Blueprints, the Points of Light Foundation has been awarded 75 AmeriCorps National Direct members to serve and engage veterans. Points of Light will work with communities to leverage Corps members in new and strategic ways to address the job readiness needs of veterans.

In an era of tight budgets, America's veterans are returning home after more than 10 years of war. In addition, there are many veterans among the nearly 11,500 people who turn 65 every day. Cities are on the frontline of these two trends, and despite the challenges, there continues to exist a "Sea of Goodwill" for our veterans. With local leadership, coordinated community-based responses can help ensure that all veterans live with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Details: For information about what your community can do to serve veterans, go to the Housing Rehabilitation for Veterans with Disabilities page or contact Elisha Harig-Blaine at harig-blaine@nlc.org.