Veteran services improving throughout Harris County

Veteran services improving throughout Harris County Veteran services improving throughout Harris County[/caption]

Access to services for veterans is improving in northwest Harris County. More local veterans are taking advantage of the Tomball Veterans Affairs clinic that opened in 2013 and continues to add services. In addition, organizations as varied as Lone Star College and Northwest Assistance Ministries are broadening outreach initiatives to accommodate underserved veteran populations.

Also, for veterans with disabilities or those with transportation issues, more access is provided today to connect veterans to their benefits, said Stephen Biehl, a veteran with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2427 in Tomball, which also serves veterans in the Spring and Klein region.

“The services were always available, it was just hard to get to them,” Biehl said. “The veterans would just have to go all the way into [Houston]. For the caretaker [who’s] working a job or has other responsibilities, it’s a big help. It takes that burden off the caretaker.” 

The nationwide struggle to help veterans transition back to civilian life is evident in Harris County. The Houston VA’s regional office, which serves about 760,000 veterans throughout South Texas, Mexico, and Central and South America, is trying to work through a backlog of benefits claims, according to the Houston Veterans Benefits Administration.

Although the backlog is down significantly from January 2013, when it stood at 28,500 claims, there still remains a strong need to assist veterans with mental health, education, employment and housing issues, said Tony Solomon, director of the Veteran Behavioral Health Initiative at Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

“The VA simply can’t handle everything that’s being asked of it, and some veterans are not happy with the services they are receiving,” he said. “What you’ve seen over the past few years is the development of programs that are designed to help veterans transition back to the community instead of just back to the VA to wait in line.”

Veteran services improving throughout Harris County Veteran services improving throughout Harris County[/caption]

Local resources

After years of having to travel to Houston’s inner loop for services, veterans in the Spring area have embraced more services available to them locally. The Tomball VA, which opened in 2013, has become a go-to location for members, said Sammy Zachary, a veteran with VFW
Post 10352 near Spring.

“That’s about the best clinic around,” Zachary said. “It’s never crowded. I tell all of the guys here, ‘If you have a problem with your current doctors, go to [the] Tomball [VA].’”

LSCS officials are building their VetSuccess program as demographic studies show more veterans are seeking higher education opportunities at the system’s six campuses.

LSCS serves nearly 3,000 military- affiliated students, but LSCS Veteran Affairs Director Steven Hall said he believes that population could increase.

Hall said it takes the VA office about 14 days to process a veteran student’s request for certification, which allows veterans to receive the education stipends needed to pay for classes. It can take up to 25 days during peak enrollment periods, he said.

“Our goal in the near future is to reduce that processing time,” Hall said. “The main goal is to be student-centered to the point where all they have to worry about is going to class.”

A collaborative effort by advisors at each of the system’s six campuses in January completely erased a backlog of 1,500 veteran student requests in less than 30 days, Hall said.

County programs

The Harris County Veterans Treatment Court program, which launched in 2009 to provide medical help to veterans convicted of felonies as an alternative to jail time, was expanded in November to include veterans convicted of misdemeanors.

Before Harris County Judge Ed Emmett asked the Mental Health Association of Houston to develop a behavioral health program for veterans in 2008, many veterans were returning to civilian life with no support system, said District Judge Marc Carter, who presides over the Veterans Court at the state’s 228th District Court.

“It’s about building a safety net, a community, a foundation,” Carter said. “Everybody builds a support team around them, but somehow a lot of our veterans find themselves alone.”

The court aims to help veterans in the early stages before problems become worse, Carter said. Cases of domestic violence and budding alcohol or drug dependencies can often be traced to a mental disorder that originated while serving in a combat zone, he said.

Meanwhile the Coalition for the Homeless in Harris County has found housing for more than 2,800 veterans since 2012, CEO Marilyn Brown said. Working with more than 70 partners, including Northwest Assistance Ministries in Northwest Houston, volunteers meet homeless veterans face-to-face in an effort to get them off the streets.

The coalition has set a goal to completely eliminate veteran homelessness in the county by the end of this year, Brown said.

“There has been unprecedented collaboration among stakeholders addressing this challenge,” she said. “We’ve now effectively created a single front door so that any homeless veteran in our community can receive services.”

Additional reporting by Chris Shelton

By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.