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Coronavirus Concerns Alter Mission Of Veteran Advocates


As most people get used to the notion of working from home amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there are some agencies facing the challenge of continuing to deliver services without the face-to-face interaction on which their clients. This includes veterans support agencies.

From filing benefits claims to seeking financial help, many of the services provided are best processed in face-to-face meetings. But not-for-profit veteran agencies are among those that have sent their employees home to work under government-ordered strategies to slow the spread of coronavirus.

"We do have significantly reduced staffing, along with that reduced capacity to serve our veterans,” said Alyssa Vasquez, the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer program manager at the Veterans One-Stop Center of Western New York. “I would just encourage people to only contact the Veterans One-Stop if they are in an emergent housing need something like that, where they they are in dire straits.”

Vasquez urges any veterans in the midst of a mental health emergency to contact the Veteran Crisis Services hotline.

In the short term, an online blues benefit concert was planned to raise funds for local veterans in immediate need. Blues 4 Vets will host this concert Sunday afternoon. ( Further information is available here.)

There is some temporary relief for veterans struggling with housing or mortgage issues. A state-ordered 90-day moratorium on evictions is in effect in New York state, while at the federal level many mortgage payments are being lowered or suspended for those who have suffered economic hardship as a result of the virus.

Chris Kreiger, president and co-founder of Western New York Heroes, Inc., is experiencing a rising number of veterans calling in search of help.

“The amount of veterans coming to us, who need more assistance now than before this outbreak, is starting to become overwhelming, especially for those veterans who were working and had an income coming in. Now they don't and they're, you know, reaching out to us because they can't even so much as afford groceries right now,” he said. “So that's where we're seeing our influx a little bit more. We are still getting the normal veteran population who still needs rental assistance or assistance with utilities and mortgage.

“We're advising the veterans that we're not saying ‘no’ to any of your financial assistance. All we're doing is we're taking their requests and kind of putting it all on hold for the next 90 days.”

Kreiger says he and some of his peers have previously joked that in the event of a domestic catastrophe, veterans would be in better shape to handle it. He cites their training to work in harsh conditions with minimal resources. But there’s concern for older veterans and his agency assists them with short-term needs such as food. (What they are not, he added, is a food bank.)

Vasquez also expressed concern for older veterans, and those who lack the means to handle claims and paperwork electronically, when asked about the challenges of serving clients when unable to do so in a face-to-face setting.

“There's things that you have to really make them understand and paperwork that needs to be provided,” she said. “There can be a huge hindrance there if they're not able to, say, fax something or scan and send something to us by email.”

But she added there has been one change that has helped them in the work-from-home environment.

“Just as the entire government has really kind of realized, they have to be lax on certain standards like HIPAA standards for certain providers,” she said. “We've also gotten the okay to lower some of our standing standards and criteria to kind of help facilitate still being able to assist while having to do it from afar.”

One kind of program that is especially missed is peer-to-peer interaction and counseling.

“For many, many of our veterans, they depend on that peer to peer support group that happens every month, sometimes as many as three a month, not being able to get that group together and have that camaraderie and that brotherhood and sisterhood,” Kreiger said. “We're still trying to do that as best we can. Whether it's through Zoom, whether it's through Facetime, if you have an iPhone or Facebook or Twitter, we're still trying to stay in touch with all of our veterans, still trying to meet their needs the best way we can and do the best that we can do with what we have right now.”

Overall, how do advocates observe veterans handling life in a pandemic?

“Personally, I'm seeing, like, two kind of reactions to everything that's going on right now,” Vasquez said. “I'm seeing, you know, people that have gone back into like this survival, almost battle mindset. Like even going into a grocery store is kind of like, you know, they're in the thick of it, they're battling it out for supplies for their families for livelihood. So there's that reaction. But then more so, thankfully, what I'm also seeing is that reaction of … everybody that's ever served in the military can kind of understand that ‘embrace the suck’ factor. We say that like a ‘we're all in this together’ kind of thing. I think that, more than the stressful reactions, I think I'm seeing a lot more of the positive, like ‘this sucks for everybody and everybody is suffering and we're in this together,’ a be there for one another kind of thing.”

The economic impact of the virus has left many without a job. When it’s finally time to reopen for business as it once was, veterans already struggling to find work will find more competition for jobs. Kreiger says there are jobs out there now for the veteran willing to look for them, at companies who are seeking help to keep up with services deemed essential.

What worries Kreiger, meanwhile, is how the economic impact will also affect the agencies who serve veterans. He noted that his organization does not receive government subsidies.

“Our big worry out of all this is that with all the small companies, the large corporations or even the individuals who are shutting down or being laid off, it could be critical to not only our non-profit but to many other non-profits because with the financial hurt everyone is seeing from this, nobody's going to be so quick or apt to make that large donation for quite a while,” he said. “I mean, that that could be a critical turning point for many of these non-profits where, you know, they rely and operate solely off donations and fundraising.”