About 75 people interested in veterans and their needs gathered Monday morning in Solvang to hear about a new project to assess veterans’ needs and the services that are and are not available to them, then develop a countywide program that will improve their wellness and maximize their contributions to the community.
The Santa Barbara County Veterans Assessment Project is being launched by the Santa Barbara Foundation but will involve government agencies, nonprofit organizations, veterans and their families, said Kathy Simas, the foundation’s North County Center director who is behind the effort.
“We have many programs to address veterans needs, but veterans do not know how to access them,” Simas told the crowd gathered in a meeting room at the Root 246 restaurant that included city and county elected officials and staff, representatives of nonprofit organizations and veterans.
“Some providers do not know what others provide,” she said, noting there are currently some collaborative efforts like the annual Veterans Stand Down in Santa Maria, which is aimed at connecting veterans with service providers.
Simas said the foundation is taking the lead on creating a community-driven needs assessment with the ultimate goal of creating a cohesive strategy for meeting those needs that will help veterans integrate into society and make the best use of their skills.
Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said the group gathered for the orientation consisted of practically everyone involved in organizing the annual Stand Down events.
“I’m just excited the Santa Barbara Foundation decided to take a leadership position in determining how best to serve our veterans in Santa Barbara County,” Lavagnino said after the meeting. “I hope they can show us how to work collaboratively.”
Guest speaker and facilitator Nancy Berglass has helped cities all over the nation develop comprehensive strategies for helping veterans, and she outlined some of the best to show the audience how every community’s needs are unique and they are met through different strategies.
But she said it’s important that whatever method Santa Barbara County chooses, it must be community-driven and based on direct evidence of needs specific to local veterans that will be determined by the new assessment.
If it is, Berglass said, it will result in more effective case management, a continuum of care, an increase in employed veterans, better cross-sector collaboration, an informed and strategic philanthropy that will benefit the entire county and veterans who are more integrated and more civically engaged.
If not, she said, there will be an increase in the number of homeless veterans and well as low-income veterans, substance abuse will increase and mental health outcomes will be worse, while services will be duplicated and funding for services will be diluted.
Organizers hope to start gathering data late this month or in early April by gathering data from such sources as the Veterans Administration, Department of Defense, Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among others, as well as scholarly works.
At least three focus groups also will meet with veterans and their families as well as veterans’ advocates and the movers and shakers of local governments and society.
Berglass said that will develop a database of the “who, what and where” of veterans in the county, a list of needs vs. the resources available, trends in opinion, stakeholder assets and more.
“That information does not yet exist, but we will find it out,” she said.
Once that data is analyzed and interpreted, the group will develop recommendations and draft reports for delivery to the various agencies and organizations in an effort to get a comprehensive strategy implemented.
Berglass said the hope is to have the reports done before the next Veterans Stand Down on Oct. 21.
“I don’t know if we will deliver it in enough time for anyone to understand the data and organize the Stand Down around it,” she said. “We don’t know what we’re going to find yet.”
She added it’s up to the community to decide what to do with that data.
“The will has to be there,” she said. “Is there the commitment to do something with the information when you get it?”
Audience members not only had questions about the process but also insights into the problems of connecting veterans to services.
Kevin Hagedorn, who coordinates veteran and military services for UCSB, said he believes the problem is underutilization of the veterans services that are available.
He told the group about a young woman whose father, a veteran, had died. She was struggling to make ends meet and attend college but didn’t know about services that were available until he explained and helped her obtain them.
“One or two conversations added hundreds of thousands of dollars to one family,” Hagedorn said. “We need to make better use of what we have existing.”
Others echoed that sentiment.
“There are a lot of services people don’t get,” said Patrick Murphy, commander of American Legion Post 49 in Santa Barbara. “The VA has thousands of pieces of information to hand out, but veterans don’t ask the right questions.”
Chuck Flacks, executive director of the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness, said he hopes something will come of the project, adding he’s seen “a lot of big plans that don’t get implemented.”
“We need to take what’s working up to the next level,” he said.
Among the issues raised by audience members was getting better Veterans Administration health services locally, rather than sending veterans to Los Angeles for “an entire day for a procedure that takes an hour.”