At the Mission Viejo Library, banners remember soldiers who lost their lives in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Monday, May 30, 2011 | Being a needy military veteran is rough.

The scars of war — both physical and invisible — have crippled many veterans’ ability to cope, feed their families and just plain survive.

It’s especially rough in Orange County.

While the county has its channels of help, it doesn’t have basic resources other counties have, such as Veterans Affairs hospitals and homeless shelters.

“There’s a huge need, and the need is not met,” said Karen Roeper, director of Orange County Community Resources.

The situation is particularly bleak for the county’s 3,500 homeless veterans. They suffer not only from a lack of local resources but from the federal government’s misconception that Orange County is an enclave within Los Angeles County, said Deanne Tate, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization Veterans First.

In fact, Tate said, Orange County was forgotten when federal funding for veterans-only housing vouchers was dolled out in 2008. Officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department expected Long Beach to share its vouchers with Orange County, but that never happened, Tate said.

“Unfortunately we’re Orange County. We’re the stepchild,” Tate said. “Every time I write a grant, I have to put a disclaimer at the bottom of the grant that says, ‘This is Orange County. This is not Los Angeles or San Diego.’”

Roeper said Orange County didn’t receive the housing vouchers from HUD in 2008 because HUD didn’t notify county officials that the vouchers were available.

Eligible veterans are now referred to the county’s Veterans Service Office for voucher assistance through a partnership with the VA hospital in Long Beach, Roeper said. Recently the county received 220 housing vouchers that only low-income veterans are eligible to receive, she said.

County supervisors say they have made fighting homelessness a high priority, but they hesitate to give homeless veterans special treatment.

“There should be a motto of no better, no worse. Why would I treat veterans any differently than a homeless ex-reporter?” Moorlach said.

While homelessness remains an acute problem, veterans also turn to the county for help with medical issues. Workers in the Veterans Service Office spend much of their time helping veterans file complicated forms that the VA requires for medical claims. That process can be so difficult, Roeper said, that in one case it took 10 years to get a veteran his due compensation.

In other cases, the county office try to match veterans with services they could be eligible for, including treatment under the U.S. Mental Health Services Act and job help through “one stop” employment centers, Roeper said.

The office also obtains nonemergency medical transportation for veterans through the county Office on Aging. The service, available to all senior citizens, regularly transports veterans to the VA hospital in Long Beach.

“We do what we can to provide the best quality of life for our veterans,” Roeper said.

Outside of county government, Veterans First is the only organization in Orange County that works specifically with veterans, Tate said.

Veterans First temporarily houses homeless veterans and provides assistance like employment training and other services to help them rebuild their lives. But with a budget of $1.4 million and just 84 beds set aside for homeless veterans, Veterans First is meeting a small portion of the need.

The shortage of beds for veterans is shocking, Tate said. “It’s really hard to tell someone we don’t have a bed for them. There’s no reason for it.”

Tate hopes bed availability will improve soon. The organization is trying to raise funds for a larger shelter that could house “a couple hundred” homeless veterans each night, Tate said. She expects the shelter to open in July.

More information about assistance provided by the county’s Veterans Service Office can be found here.

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