Veterans, advocates brace for cutbacks

The Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training's Baltimore complex is full of neatly made beds and shining-clean floors, a military-like environment for homeless former service members working to get their lives back on track.

Its executive director, a retired Navy lieutenant, would love to expand the nonprofit so he can take in families — children as well as their veteran parent. But as David T. Clements works to pin down new funding for that effort, he's worried about the money he's already got.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently warned the center to expect a cut in grant funding of more than 3.5 percent, which Clements said would hit late next year. Whether cuts will also ripple through other grants remains to be seen.

"We're still figuring it out," he said. "We just don't know the impact yet."

That's true of many groups that help or advocate for people who have served in the military. Though lawmakers exempted the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs from the across-the-board cuts to the federal budget known as sequestration, veterans still could feel the sting, in a variety of ways.

HUD has warned that agency cuts would affect homeless-prevention aid and Section 8 housing vouchers that flow to veterans, and other Americans in need.

A HUD-VA program called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing is not due for sequestration cuts, but other programs are.

"Over the last several years, we have made significant progress in reducing homelessness and in achieving the national goal of ending veterans' homelessness," HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan told Congress in February. "These sequestration cuts would lead us in the opposite, and tragically wrong, direction."

Ray Kelley, a lobbyist for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said it's the cuts in programs that aren't specifically for veterans that will really affect that population. Furloughs of federal workers, for instance. Veterans account for nearly half the civilian Defense Department workforce.

The VFW is fighting proposals to calculate cost-of-living increases for Social Security and other benefits using the "chained" Consumer Price Index, which critics say would leave recipients less able to pay for necessities. Kelly said the change would affect some veterans twice over — through their Social Security checks and their VA disability payments.


Then there's the anxiety of what's to come for VA.

"We dodged a bullet with sequestration, but there's no guarantees in the out years that Congress doesn't … start eroding the benefits that they promised veterans," Kelley said.

The Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training has more immediate concerns, given the warning it received about its $1.3 million HUD Continuum of Care grant. Clements doesn't know yet whether other funding will be pinched, but the potential is there: Government funds accounted for 81 percent of the organization's nearly $3.2 million budget last fiscal year.

He said it would be hard to cut back — "when you're a nonprofit, you're running pretty thin" — and he hopes charitable contributions could help close the gap.

"We have to continue to provide the services," Clements said.

The center, which goes by MCVET, sits on North High Street, near the southern end of the Jones Falls Expressway. It isn't a traditional shelter. It's a residential program with participants called "students," all of whom have assigned beds. MCVET coordinates services as needed, from health care to job training to substance-abuse treatment, and helps its students find jobs once they're ready.


The number of students varies; on a recent day, 204 were living in the facility. Clements said the center has helped nearly 9,000 veterans since it opened 20 years ago.

Life there is a bit like boot camp, minus the salutes. Students wake early — 5 a.m. during the first 60 days; 5:30 a.m. afterward — and newcomers gather daily for morning formation. There's a mess hall for meals. Everyone has duties, from dusting to bathroom detail, to keep the building clean and orderly. And they're organized into platoons and squads led by fellow participants.

Students may spend as many as four and a half years at MCVET, the latter portion in dorm-style rooms for which they must pay rent.

"It's pushing the restart button," said Clements. "It's a heck of a leg up."

Angel Rhett, who served in the Air Force in the mid-1980s, moved to MCVET in March after her marriage broke up and she was left without a home.

She's grateful for a place to stay, but it's more than that. The center connected her with counseling, and she said she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder dating back to childhood.

"They helped me to figure out what was really at the root of my problems, and they're helping me to address them," said Rhett, 45.

Her plan now is to find work, save money and find a permanent place to live. She hopes every veteran who needs help will be able to get it, whatever the funding environment.

"We've got people … coming back from wars that are going to have so many problems," Rhett said. "And it may create a situation for them, just like it has for many of us, that they're going to need a program like MCVET."