Access to veterans services 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, institutions such as Lone Star College and Northwest Assistance Ministries are broadening outreach to accommodate underserved veteran populations.

“Having more local access to basic services is crucial for veterans, many of whom may be disabled or have issues with transportation,” said Jack Andrews, a veteran with VFW Post 8905 in Cypress. “The Tomball clinic has been useful for a good number of our members. Access to health care and access to places where veterans can meet are among the most important needs.”

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.”

Local resources

After years of having to travel to Houston’s inner loop for services, veterans with VFW Post 8905 in Cypress said more programs are available to them locally than ever before. The Tomball VA, which opened in 2013, has become a go-to location for members.

“No matter when you call, you can almost always schedule an appointment within the next week, and they really do care about your needs,” said Lonnie Markham, a member of Post 8905. “When you go to the downtown location, you could be waiting all day just to schedule an appointment.”

Other veterans with Post 8905 made suggestions for how to improve services even further, including better transportation services to and from clinics and better orientation programs to help veterans connect with resources.

Officials with Lone Star College System are also building their VetSuccess program as demographic studies show more and more veterans seeking higher education at the system’s six campuses.

LSCS serves just under 3,000 military affiliated students, but 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, allowing them to receive the education stipends needed to pay for their 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 Court 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 from 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 the 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 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.”