disconnect

City’s Online Referral Service for Veterans Struggles to Connect

The VetConnectNYC website. Some say it has been less than effective in connecting with New York's hundreds of thousands of veterans.
The VetConnectNYC website. Some say it has been less than effective in connecting with New York’s hundreds of thousands of veterans. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

The city’s $500,000 online hub for connecting veterans to services has struggled to engage users — drawing just over 500 people in nearly a year, records show.

In the first 11 months since the VetConnectNYC site went live in November 2018, 522 veterans or their family members requested services or care through the portal, according to city Department of Veterans’ Services data.

That’s out of the more than 210,000 veterans who live in the five boroughs, according to City Council documents. The site is managed by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, whose annual contract to operate the hub was renewed last week for $514,000.

“Those [user] numbers should be a lot higher, because many of the resources are there,” said City Councilmember Chaim Deutsch (D-Brooklyn), chair of the Veterans Committee. “So it’s all about doing the outreach and getting the message out, and making it easier for veterans who are having difficult times in their lives to find those resources quicker.”

The top services sought on the site by veterans — many of whom requested assistance in more than one area — were for housing, jobs and help with navigating benefits. Agency officials said 1,012 services requests were made through Sept. 30.

‘It Doesn’t Make Sense’

Coco Culhane, founder of the Veteran Advocacy Project at the Urban Justice Center, said the hub has struggled to secure buy-in from veterans. She added that service providers largely have failed to refer clients who need help in various areas back to the hub for additional aid.

At a City Council hearing on VetConnectNYC last month, Culhane and other advocates also noted that some of the 102 service providers have lengthy waiting lists — meaning that even when veterans are connected, it doesn’t guarantee they’re getting quick help.

“My critique of the system is twofold: One is that it’s not working because providers aren’t really using it. But it’s also: Why are we putting so much money into something that’s providing referrals?” she told THE CITY.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Culhane added. “Referrals are valuable … but at $1,000 a head, it just doesn’t seem right.”

At that same hearing, Kent Eiler, project director at the City Bar Justice Center’s Veterans Assistance Project, said the hub seemed to make the referral process unnecessarily onerous.

Retired Brigadier General Loree Sutton, M.D., announces she is stepping down as commissioner of the Dept. of Veterans Services on Oct. 3, with Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Retired Brigadier General Loree Sutton, M.D., announces she is stepping down as commissioner of the Dept. of Veterans Services on Oct. 3, with Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: NYC Veterans/Facebook

A user who clicks on a need for legal services provided by the City Bar Justice Center isn’t put in touch directly with the center, but rather asked to leave their information so that VetConnect can make the referral itself, he said.

“Anecdotally in my career I have frequently heard veterans tell me, ‘I need a lawyer and I need a doctor, I need a job or I need an apartment,’ but I have never, not once, heard a veteran tell me, ‘Could you help me with a referral? What I really need is a referral,’ ” testified Eiler.

“Our client population is typically stressed and looking for someone, anyone to do the work at a time when service providers everywhere are simply maxed out,” he added.

Agency Predicts Hub Growth

Department of Veterans’ Services officials said clients are referred to overbooked services only after being warned that there’s a waitlist, and they agree to proceed.

The officials noted that the site is relatively new and that the agency engages veterans in a number of other ways, including through peer counselors.

“As we build on our ongoing outreach efforts for VetConnect, and more and more veterans hear about the positive experience others have had, we’re confident the number of veterans and family members engaging the network will continue to grow,” said Gabriel Ramos, an agency spokesperson.

The agency, which was formed in 2016 at the urging of the City Council as a replacement for the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, has an annual operating budget of about $5.4 million.

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that Department of Veterans’ Services Commissioner Dr. Loree Sutton, a retired Army brigadier general, will be stepping down at the end of the month.

She’ll be replaced by James Hendon, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.