Organization helps homeless veterans secure back benefit awards

The combat Brad Johnson saw as a young man in the Army during the United States’ invasion of Grenada has haunted him for more than 30 years as vivid nightmares and repeated unwanted thoughts.

When the symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder became extreme, he sought benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But despite documentation for his service-connected disability, he said he battled denials and appeals from the agency for more than two years. Ultimately, he said, it was only with the help of a free lawyer from the Baltimore-based nonprofit Homeless Persons Representation Project that he was awarded $44,000 in back benefits.

“The fight was so hard, if I didn’t have a lawyer in the process, I would still be fighting today,” said Johnson, 58, who splits his time living at his home with his wife in Perry Point and his mother’s house in Salisbury.

The Homeless Persons Representation Project has secured nearly $1 million in back pensions and disability benefits and about $50,000 in ongoing monthly payments for people who served in the military. The project began in 2013 helping establish legal clinics at various locations. The clinics were an expansion of earlier outreach efforts by the nonprofit to help homeless veterans and those in unstable housing, including by training volunteer attorneys and sending them to shelters and health fairs.

The lawyers work with veterans across Maryland to secure the financial awards, upgrade less-than-honorable discharge statuses and expunge criminal records.

At the time the clinics were established, Baltimore’s VA office was one of the slowest at processing disability claims and one of the most error-prone in the country, a 2013 investigation by The Baltimore Sun found. A series of improvements were made to the office, which handles claims for all Maryland veterans, at the urging of then-Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and other lawmakers.

Still, surveys show more than 500 homeless veterans are living in Maryland; nearly half of them in Baltimore.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said all veterans who disagree with the decisions issued on their claims requests are entitled to an appeal. The agency notes that help with the claims process is available from national and state veterans service organizations.

“For years, VA’s administrative appeals process had been complex, inefficient and difficult to navigate for Veterans,” Cashour said in an email. “To address this issue, VA worked with Congress and Veterans Service Organizations on the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017, which overhauls and modernizes our claims appeals process and thereby provides better, faster decisions for Veterans. President Trump signed the act into law in August.”

The Homeless Persons Representation Project has 265 open cases involving veteran benefits and discharge upgrades. With the help of nearly 300 volunteer attorneys, the clinics operate at the VA medical centers in Baltimore and Perry Point, Baltimore and Anne Arundel County courts and the Three Oaks Center in St. Mary’s County. Pop-up clinics also are held across the state.

Michael Stone, a staff attorney with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, said attorneys have worked hard to reach clients in rural areas as well as cities.

“We’re always wanting to make sure that just because someone can’t get somewhere does not mean they don’t get the help,” Stone said.

In Johnson’s case, Stone said all of the information necessary to outline his disability was in his file, but the notes did not correctly document it. It took the help of an attorney to draw attention to the error, Stone said.

“Because the VA is so large, and they have to help so many people, a lot of stuff is going on autopilot,” Stone said. “It’s easy to forget there are people behind this and people impacted by these decisions. As soon as I got someone to look at the facts … it was approved.”

Johnson received his back benefits in October. His will continue to receive monthly benefits of about $1,500.

Kevin Blue, 56, of Rising Sun in Cecil County, will receive more than $2,900 a month on top of $50,000 in back benefits after spending about 15 years homeless. Medically discharged from the Marine Corps in the 1980s for contracting meningitis, Blue said he also suffers from service-connected PTSD.

Blue worked for many years as a plant supervisor in Baltimore, but he said his condition makes holding a job now impossible.

Stone said Blue’s pro-bono attorney was able to show the VA documentation to prove that working and treating his mental health with medication and therapy was not possible.

Blue traveled to Georgia over Veterans Day weekend to visit his sons and recommit his support to them after being able to secure his disability benefits and get his life back on track.

“If it wasn’t for these guys helping me out I would be pretty well in a pickle,” Blue said of the lawyers with the Homeless Persons Representation Project. “There is help. You need to go there and see these guys. They will help you out. These people are God-sent.”

ywenger@baltsun.com

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