Vet-assistance group’s funds flying out door
By KEENAN CHEN and CLAIRE EVERETT/CU-CitizenAccess.org
Unable to pay her rent after losing her job, Air Force veteran Anna Robinson turned to the Veterans Assistance Commission in Champaign County last year. She brought her bill to the commission's office and got $744 in financial assistance that same day.
But when she sought help from the commission again in January to buy a bus pass, Robinson found it was no longer easy.
The program gives out funds on the first of the month — and even though she caught the earliest bus, at 6:20 a.m., to get to the group's office, there was already a long line of veterans waiting.
Funds ran out before her number was called.
Robinson, a 59-year-old Champaign resident who served as an electronic instructor at the now-defunct Chanute Air Force Base from 1984 to 1990, said she joked with the other veterans in line that the system was like waiting for rations.
"I'm showing up in line like I was on rations in World War II," she said. "It's kind of frustrating when I'm trying to work and I have to borrow money from a friend just to get a bus pass."
The Champaign County Veterans Assistance Commission Program began in December 2012 in response to a state law. The program helps veterans who need temporary financial assistance pay for things such as groceries, mortgage or rent, and utilities. Veterans are also offered help processing VA claims, military medical records and finding various forms of assistance such as counseling.
But as more veterans found out about the Champaign County program, its $80,000-a-year budget was not enough to meet the demand. Champaign County has more than 11,500 veterans, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.
In fiscal year 2013 (December 2012 to November 2013), the commission distributed funds to 185 veterans and helped a total of 696. It denied funds to 13 veterans, mainly because they were not Champaign County residents.
However, this fiscal year, the commission has already had to turn away 177 veterans, mostly because funds ran out.
"It might cause some of the veterans problems, but that's the money I have," said commission superintendent Bradley Gould.
"Last year, no one knew we were here," he said.
Funds go fast
Robbie Walker, a veteran service officer of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Champaign County, said he refers veterans without federal compensation to the commission because a Veteran Affairs claim process takes a year or more. He said the commission could help "fill the gap."
But in reports to the county board this year, Gould wrote: "VAC was out of funds again in two hours."
He explained the money shortage each month was a result of the commission's "equal distribution" policy, which was introduced in December and limits the distribution per month and per veteran per year.
Starting in June, the commission implemented a cap of $350 a month per veteran and gave people waiting in line appointments to come back for their money.
"If I weren't to divide the money by each month, we would be out of money by March of this year," Gould said.
Robinson said she was mostly frustrated because the commission should prioritize those with emergencies, not those who arrived at the commission's office first.
"Mine was legitimate," she said. "I got documentation of unemployment."
All commission budgets are controlled by the counties, said Michael Iwanicki, president of the Illinois Association of County Veterans Assistance Commissions and superintendent of Veterans Assistance Commission in McHenry County.
"Regardless of how they get the money, the county controls the purse," he said.
Iwanicki said since Champaign is a fairly new commission, it would probably take some time to build up to the budget.
"Basically, a veteran assistance commission is a partnership between the county board and the local veteran organizations. That's why the commission has to justify its use of its money to the county board," Iwanicki said.
Gould expects the county board will raise the commission's budget for this year during the budget review in August, but the decision is entirely up to the county board.
"There's never going to be enough funding, let's put it that way," Gould said. "But we are going to increase it a little bit to help — I'm not sure by how much, that's up to the county."
'Step from catastrophe'
When the money runs out, Gould points veterans to other outlets — such as the Salvation Army's Supportive Services for Veteran Family program, which is funded by the VA. Christy Thompson, case manager of the program, said she receives about five veterans per week referred from the commission and she sends one to two people a day to the VAC.
"When we run out of money, we let them know; when they run out of money, they let us know," Thompson said. "Basically, we work together to try to make sure every veteran possible is taken care of."
Between the two programs, the demands are still high. Thompson said 45 households are currently on the waiting list for the Salvation Army's Homeless Prevention program. This program has a high budget for critical cases, like helping with evictions and assisting homeless veterans, while the commission is for temporary assistance of "category one" cases.
Robinson said the reason she turned to the commission in the first place was because she had no record of needing assistance. She said the Salvation Army program, geared toward keeping veterans and their families from homelessness, is hard to get any money from. She said she hoped more veterans found out about the commission program and are able to utilize it.
The president of the commission board, John Maggio, said Champaign County's commission "did far better than anybody thought" but also needed more support.
"It took us about four years to set up this program, even though they were required to approve it," Maggio said, "but they just kept dragging their feet."
So far, 47 of the 102 counties in Illinois have implemented veterans assistance commissions programs. According to the Illinois Military Assistance Act, a county is required to proceed with establishing a commission once two local veteran organizations submit such a petition.
There is no question in Robinson's mind that the programs are needed.
"Everyone is one step away from catastrophe," Robinson said, "sometimes only 30 or 50 dollars can be like a million bucks to you."
Editor's note: CU-CitizenAccess operates under the Department of Journalism at the University of Illinois and focuses on local investigative reporting, with an emphasis on social, justice and economic issues. The project began with funding from the Marajen Stevick Foundation and the UI and a matching grant from the John S. Knight and James L. Knight Foundation. For more, visit cu-citizenaccess.org.