In January 2019, the Legal Counsel for the Elderly participated in the 25th Winterhaven Stand Down, a resource event for homeless and at-risk veterans that took place at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Photo by Jordan Tobias.

Since 2014, the D.C. nonprofit Legal Counsel for the Elderly (LCE) has run what is known as the “veterans advocacy project,” which helps seniors who served in the military navigate and connect with benefits they qualify to receive from entities such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The project, which also assists surviving spouses, currently consists of two full-time attorneys. About 442 veterans with disabilities over the age of 65 are living below the poverty level in the city, according to recent American Community Survey data. During fiscal year 2019, 2,663 District residents over the age of 65 were receiving veterans disability compensation.

This year, the small veterans advocacy project team has helped 57 veterans on 74 different cases regarding VA pension and compensation benefits. They also help elderly veterans apply for food assistance programs, file claims with the Social Security Administration, and resolve issues related to overpayment and debt discharges. But they anticipate a greater workload in the months ahead given the looming threat of evictions.

Now, thanks to a $300,000 grant from the national AARP Foundation, the project is about to grow significantly. LCE plans to use the added funds to hire an additional staff attorney and expand outreach to better assist veterans who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless, according to JoAnn Mangione, the LCE communications manager.

This effort is influenced by data that reveal hundreds of veterans experiencing homelessness in the District. Every year, governments across the United States conduct a count of people experiencing homelessness on a single night in January. According to a regional analysis of the findings published earlier this year, 297 homeless veterans can be found in D.C. on “any given night,” which is about the same number as each of the previous four years.

“We believe that with the pandemic-related eviction and foreclosure moratorium ending, this number is going to increase beyond that,” said Swapna Yeluri, a senior staff attorney who joined LCE about a year ago after running similar pro bono legal clinics at various VA medical centers for five years.

The District stopped accepting new applications for its emergency COVID-19 rent and utility assistance program on Oct. 27, with the amount and timing of additional federal funding still to be determined. While the city allowed some evictions to proceed in late summer after the end of the public health emergency, the local pandemic-related eviction moratorium prevented most new cases from being filed until Oct. 12.

Throughout the pandemic, Yeluri said, the LCE’s veterans advocacy project has continued to do outreach, giving online presentations to educate elderly veterans about the benefits and entitlements available to them. But the new AARP grant will enable LCE to establish clinics at sites throughout the District where veterans are already accessing community programs and services. Yeluri said the organization has identified a list of three sites to date and hopes to launch the expanded program in January. By October 2022, the project aims to have six clinics in operation.

Like many seniors, elderly veterans face persistent barriers stemming from digital illiteracy and lack of access to computers or smartphones. This can prevent some veterans from accessing their previous service records, an essential element of successful applications, according to Yeluri.

She said one of the biggest challenges is that a lot of elderly clients’ records have not been digitized yet. Veterans often need to provide such records to the VA as proof of service before they can obtain benefits, but only about 10% of military service records are available digitally. The vast majority of paper records are held at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. But due to the coronavirus, the storage facility is operating at significantly reduced staffing levels, leading to an increased backlog of requests for records. Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration reported the facility had a backlog of over half a million records requests.

Challenges some veterans face with navigating entitlements

Benning Heights resident Brian Clemons, 65, an Air Force veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), tried filing a VA compensation claim in 2000 for a service-connected disability.

“I just kept thinking, ‘Well, once this comes through, I’ll get my place and bring my kids, and live my life,’” he said. “But once they denied it, I was in such a shock, I had a panic attack and suffered a breakdown. I couldn’t even talk.”

According to Clemons, the VA did send him a complete copy of his service records upon request. But the documents were missing crucial pieces about his service — namely, records of his training and his awards. The omissions not only added to his frustration but also complicated his efforts to obtain the benefits he’s eligible for.

“How could I go to basic training and tech school and there’s nothing there?” he asked.

Clemons, who served in the Air Force for about 16 months in the early 1970s before receiving an early honorable discharge, has long struggled with trying to process the trauma of his military experience.

An avionics technician, Clemons said that the predominantly white servicemembers working alongside him would often target him because of his race.

“Most of the Black airmen worked in the motor pool or civil engineering or refueling. But Blacks moving into avionics — that wasn’t supposedly for us,” he said of the prevailing attitude. “I mean, it was really bad.”

Clemons recalls being singled out as the only Black airman working in his field. He described being intentionally left behind on a cold, wet tarmac and waiting during a freezing downpour while his commander took his white counterparts to lunch. Clemons said he was almost killed on two occasions because his crew chief removed the safety struts from the aircraft Clemons was working on.

An inspector general’s report published in 2020 revealed that racism continues to be a widespread problem in the Air Force, with Black servicemembers 60% more likely than their white counterparts to face a court-martial. A study conducted back when Clemons served surveyed conditions across 15 air bases and documented just how pervasive racist violence and harassment were in the Air Force at the time. In 1971, a race riot erupted at Travis Air Base in California, with approximately 300 military police and civilian law enforcement called upon to quell the violence.

“I was dumb enough to believe that [the Air Force and the VA] would be fair. And when they finally declined me, I broke down. It was just too much,” Clemons said.

The challenge now is that the only way he can think of proving his training and awards is by gathering statements from others who served alongside him. But Clemons only remembers last names, which makes it difficult to find and reach out to those former colleagues.

Today, he is working with a lawyer from LCE’s veterans advocacy project to resubmit his claim. It’s already proving helpful.

“He says there are databases now that you can now go back and check” to confirm people’s names, Clemons said.

How to get involved in helping elderly veterans

With a third staff attorney joining the veterans advocacy project soon, LCE is also trying to recruit volunteer lawyers and paralegals. LCE works with a large number of pro bono lawyers who handle about 600 cases a year, according to their website.

“Even if they’re not knowledgeable at all about VA law, we will be able to provide them with the training to help them be able to handle these types of cases,” Yeluri said.

The volunteer attorneys and paralegals can contribute by informing clients about the ins and outs of various public benefit programs and helping them navigate complicated application procedures. In Yeluri’s experience, some clients are discouraged by “circular” bureaucratic processes.

“For instance, they’re asked to submit something and they submit something — and then they’re told, ‘Oh, you didn’t submit it this way’ or ‘You need to do it this way,’” she said.

This kind of response can be especially difficult for elderly clients who are also juggling various medical appointments and other commitments. Having someone familiar working on their behalf can make all the difference.

Volunteers and LCE staff attorneys can also assist clients with other kinds of legal issues or disputes they may be facing. But the veterans advocacy project’s lawyers often fill a more basic need — just by paying attention to what clients are telling them as they prepare to take on the role of advocate.

“A lot of times my clients say, ‘It doesn’t matter to me whether you’ve won my case or not — it’s the fact that you’re the first person who has actually listened to what I’m saying,’” Yeluri said.

###

This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.