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Helping the City Help Its Veterans

Efrain Diaz, a veteran who fought in Iraq, is now fighting to keep his home with help from attorney Coco Culhane, director of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center, which is supported by a $50,000 grant.

“While in Iraq as a member of the 'Fighting 69th' Infantry Regiment, Efrain Diaz watched his friends get blown up yards away. When he returned to New York, he did his best to find work and got two part-time jobs. But then his mother fell ill and needed 24-hour care,” starts Coco Culhane, director of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center.

“He moved back into the public housing unit he grew up in to take care of her and applied to be re-added to the household, but was told he could only have temporary status. Time and again he tried to get approved permanently, but with no success. After his mother’s death nearly two years later, he finally sought support for what he would learn was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Then the New York City Housing Authority began eviction proceedings, claiming he had not lived in the apartment the requisite 12 months as an authorized tenant and thus had no succession right.”

Last year, the Urban Justice Center began providing legal help to veterans. A grant of $50,000 is helping vets with PTSD, depression, and other problems. But this program—and our grants—can’t reach all those who need services.

Adjusting to life back in New York City can be extremely hard for veterans. Services are difficult to get and don’t take into account the complex and changing needs of vets. For instance, many are National Guard members who had never been deployed overseas, but have now served several tours and can’t find work. Some are women who have been sexually traumatized while serving. And while a fast-track to citizenship may have been an incentive used at the recruiting office, it’s up to immigrant soldiers to deal with the red tape and paperwork. A single veteran may need mental health care for PTSD, physical therapy for injuries, family counseling, and career training. He may also need help with problems that plague many other low-income New Yorkers, such as finding housing or dealing with debt—problems that may have been exacerbated by the time away.

To get help, returning vets must juggle working with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), two state agencies, the City Department of Veterans Affairs, VA hospitals, community Vet Centers, and nonprofit agencies. Some nonprofits have begun to offer services with government and foundation support, but there is no central coordinator for all of these services.

That is why, with the encouragement of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, we started the New York City Veterans Fund with a grant of $150,000. While still taking form, the Fund’s advisory committee will eventually comprise foundation representatives, public officials, veterans’ advocates, and nonprofits to ensure that money goes to fill the most important gaps in services.

“Through our inquiries, we have found that many foundations, agencies, and individuals care deeply about the future of our veterans and are eager to work together,” says Len McNally, program director at The Trust. “If the NYC Veterans Fund is able to organize this committed community and focus our efforts efficiently, I have no doubt we’ll be able to make our City a better place to live for veterans and their families.”

Legal Advocates for Veterans

In addition to the grants above, The Trust is supporting the Veterans Assistance Project of theAssociation of the Bar of the City of New York Fund for the fourth consecutive year with a $35,000 grant. The program trains lawyers to provide pro bono help to vets dealing with the VA’s onerous disability claims process. “A veteran who is now suffering due to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam may need help connecting his health problems now to his service 35 years ago,” says Rob Gingher, a patent attorney with Dickstein Shapiro, who both instructs other lawyers and works with vets at the Bar’s clinic. Gingher, who served for six years as a Naval officer, can relate to the vets he helps. “I know exactly what’s on a Form DD214, because I’ve got one, too.” He enjoys the work because “there is nothing greater than being able to help someone who really deserves to be helped.”

With poverty at the heart of many vets’ challenges, a $100,000 grant will help Legal Services NYC start a new Veterans Justice Project. It will work with veterans groups in all five boroughs to provide help getting health, disability, and other government benefits. The group’s lawyers will also help with housing, employment, family law, and other legal issues veterans face. In addition, the Project will train staff at several immigrant-serving groups throughout the five boroughs, such as the MinKwon Center for Community Action and El Centro Del Inmigrante, to identify immigrants eligible for military service benefits, including expedited citizenship.

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