New report reveals Inland Empire vets struggle to find benefits, services

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A new study released by Inland Empire Community Foundation (IECF) reveals the challenges Inland Empire veterans face when seeking programs, resources and organizations. The report was unveiled Feb. 29 at an event held at the March Air Field Museum, with committee members, key local and statewide leaders and top veterans advocates in the region in attendance.

Entitled the “IE State of Veterans Report,” the study was commissioned by the Friends of Veterans Fund at IECF and sheds light on the challenges IE veterans face when seeking programs, resources and organizations, and the call for a more inclusive and responsive system to their evolving needs.

It also indicates that the lack of awareness and access among the area’s veteran community is double that of Los Angeles County.

“We wanted to create a report that would help and not sit on some shelves and collect dust,” says Brie Griset Smith, IECF’s senior vice president of charitable giving. “We wanted it to move this idea of putting veterans at the center forward. With the help of different community stakeholders, we held focus groups, did individual interviews and really wrapped our arms around kind of the core components of this.”

While many benefits and services are available to veterans and their families, finding them in the Inland Empire can be taxing if not intimidating. As such, the report illuminates the need for community proactiveness in supporting those who served.

The months-long study involved extensive research, surveys and interviews with veterans, service providers and stakeholders across the Inland Empire. The findings reveal crucial insights into the current state of veteran support services, identifying gaps, successes and areas for improvement, as well as propose short- and long-term solutions toward enhancing the lives of veterans within the Inland Empire community.

Several highlights of the study are key to understanding proper ways to take action.

For instance, the veteran population percentage in Riverside and San Bernardino counties combined is nearly double that of Los Angeles County, and the population of women veterans has seen significant growth overall, increasing by more than 30%.

The Inland Empire is also home to a diverse population of veterans, who have unique needs and specific challenges. The study reveals that veterans in the region are less aware of where and how to access the benefits and services they have earned.

One sobering fact: Because of compassion fatigue, staff turnover is a key issue with veteran-focused work.

“This report comes at a crucial juncture in our ongoing efforts to care for our veterans,” says Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside). “With countless heroes returning from deployments around the world and making the Inland Empire their home, we must remain vigilant in addressing their needs.”

Patricia Lock Dawson, mayor of Riverside, says, “In partnership with our neighboring cities in the Inland Empire, we recognize the importance of a united effort in addressing the challenges our veterans face and enhancing the benefits and services available to them.”

With proactiveness in mind, several key recommendations emerged from the study, which align with established best practices seen in neighboring counties.

  • Awareness – Veteran awareness of where and how to access the benefits and services they earned. Community awareness of challenges and opportunities of our veterans and their families.
  • Access – Providing wrap-around services through a public-private partnership and multi-solvers, relying on a “no wrong door” policy for benefits and services.
  • Engagement – Create a movement of community support to embrace our veterans so they have a better sense of belonging, which in turn strengthens our civic muscle.

The three areas are the basis for a community-based network of veteran-serving organizations that relies on the power of peer-support, similar to Los Angeles County’s Veteran Peer Access Network (VPAN).

At the event, which featured local representation from the offices of Senator Kelly Seyarto and Congressman Ken Calvert, Justin McEwan shared his personal story as an honorably discharged USAF veteran of eight years who, after being discharged, found himself homeless and without a job or higher education. He connected with VPAN and received vital services that allowed him to pursue his college education and obtain employment and housing.

USAF veteran Justin McEwan shares his story at an event held Feb 29, 2024, at the March Air Field Museum in Riverside, CA. | Courtesy of IECF

Today he is an advocate for local veterans, a Wounded Warrior Fellow and Field Representative for Calvert. He also serves on the Advisory Committee for IECF’s Friends of Veterans Fund.

“This is a really exciting way to put the veterans at the center of the solution,” Smith says. “It’s literally peers who are further along in their civilian life, supporting other veterans as they are looking to identify benefits, different community services and programs.”

The legacy of the Friends of Veterans Fund factors into the mix here nicely.

It was established by IECF in 2022 with a clear goal: To benefit veterans residing in San Bernardino and Riverside counties whose needs include but are not limited to legal aid services, post-military education and skills-building, housing, basic needs and physical and mental health.

To ensure an efficient use of funds, IECF’s commissioned study eventually developed a better understanding of the environment as it relates to veterans programs and services and the need for continuum of care for vets and their families.

IECF CEO Michelle Decker says the report is a valuable resource for organizations, policymakers and individuals dedicated to the well-being of our veterans, saying, “Our goal here is to ensure veterans and their families are thriving in the IE and that they receive the recognition, support and care they earned through their service.”

The release of the study marks the beginning of a concerted effort by IECF and its partners to address the gaps identified and implement positive change for veterans in the Inland Empire. Looking ahead, IECF will host a series of community forums and workshops to further discuss the findings and collaborate on actionable solutions.

View the full report here.

For donors and businesses interested in supporting the Friends of Veterans Fund, contact Smith at [email protected].

Visit iegives.org.

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