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Newton

New vets center focuses on making connections

Newton has launched a new veterans center at American Legion Post 440 aimed at helping men and women leaving the military transition more easily back into civilian life.

The goal is to provide a location where veterans from around the region can get help in one place on a broad range of issues, such as housing, careers, transportation, health, and finances.

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The city’s Veterans Service Center is another in a series of ongoing efforts statewide to help veterans, particularly younger men and women home from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, take advantage of the services available to them.

“Massachusetts leads the nation in providing benefits to our veterans and their families,” said state Veterans’ Services Secretary Coleman Nee. “We have found that there is not a lack of resources for our veterans and their families; rather, the major impediment to accessing benefits is the lack of knowledge, access, and the navigation of the various benefits,” he said.

Gary Brown, who serves as the veterans agent for both Marlborough and Sudbury, and others in the area who work with veterans agree that finding the people who need services is sometimes the hardest part of their job.

“The help is there, but the young people are just not reaching out in the numbers you’d expect,” Brown said.

Local officials say they are working through connections with family members, friends, teachers, and others to get to veterans who may be in trouble but unable or unwilling to ask for help.

‘These guys don’t want to come in here and talk to a guy their father’s age about not being able to find a job.’

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In Framingham, Veterans Agent Peter Harvell launched a Facebook page and a “quick response” code that veterans can use to get direct access to his department’s website. He also goes around to local colleges and speaks at family groups, making sure information about the services gets out.

“These guys don’t want to come in here and talk to a guy their father’s age about not being able to find a job or make their rent payment,” he said. “But they might talk to someone who can speak their same language.”

Harvell convinced the town to hire a part-time assistant who can do just that. Matthew Demar, who served three tours of duty with the Marines in Iraq and Djbiouti, Africa, was hired last month for the position.

“They can talk easier to a peer,” Harvell said.

That’s the same idea behind two state programs begun over the past five years to serve the 385,000 veterans statewide, including the approximately 37,000 men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, according to Matthew McKenna, spokesman for the state Department of Veterans’ Services.

The SAVE program is a collaboration between veterans agency and the state Department of Public Health that offers peer-to-peer crisis intervention, while the SHARP program, started in 2011, provides similar services to veterans at risk and who are homeless.

Both programs provide crisis intervention, and also help veterans navigate through sometimes confusingstate and federal bureaucracy to receive benefits.

During the past fiscal year, the SAVE program provided direct outreach services to 1,400 veterans, according to figures provided by McKenna.

In addition, the VALOR Act, signed into law by the governor last spring, offers an array of benefits for veterans.

McKenna said he’s heard of six or seven communities around the state taking advantage of a provision in the law allowing veterans to work off a portion of their property tax bills.

Last week’s Framingham Town Meeting overwhelmingly supported a measure that will give veterans an opportunity to cover up to $750 on their tax bill by performing “resume building” tasks in town government that Harvell said he hopes will also provide leads to permanent jobs.

“We’re trying to focus on the new, younger veterans who have computer skills, and have them work in a sort of internship program in local government at night or on weekends,” he said.

Newton Mayor Setti Warren said the program in his city is also geared toward reaching veterans who for whatever reason are not accessing services.

“One of the things that was of concern was we weren’t capturing veterans before they were in dire straits or hit rock bottom,” said Warren, a Navy veteran who served in Iraq. “There was no way to ensure veterans knew they had a place to go for the myriad of services that are offered out there.”

The American Legion Post center, at 295 California St. in Newton’s Nonantum section, is starting off with regular hours the first Tuesday of each month, from 5 to 8 p.m. The center will be staffed by a mix of city employees and a rotating roster of staff from nonprofits or other veterans assistance agencies, Warren said.

There will also be special events, which Warren hopes to see expand over time.

The idea for the center grew out of a collaboration with Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Warren said he started to do some research and, about a year and a half ago, came across Linda Bilmes, the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School.

Bilmes co-wrote, with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, the book “Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts.”

Warren contacted Bilmes and she offered the research skills of four of her graduate students, who tracked what happens locally to federal and state funds for veterans.

Bilmes said they found the vast majority of money goes to acute problems like homelessness and substance abuse. But there was very little money for job counseling or reintegrating back into family life, she said.

Part of her research has delved into the hidden costs associated with taking care of those veterans who return with mental health issues or problems adjusting to civilian life.

Some of those costs could be avoided by connecting veterans with transitional services, such as helping someone find a job or housing, said Bilmes. For her the bottom line is prevention, which is less expensive than treatment, she said.

The research of her graduate students culminated in recommendations calling for a “one-stop-shopping’’ program for veterans in a facility that would also be a place to socialize, giving them a better chance of connecting with the transitional services they need.

“This is kind of an experiment, and I think Setti is to be congratulated for trying something new,” said Bilmes of the new veterans center in Newton. “We don’t know whether or not it will work . . . but it is a concept that is well grounded in social science and in research.”

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.
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