Homeless in the land of plenty

A conversation with John Crotty, Director of Sullivan County Veterans Service Agency

By TED WADDELL
Posted 5/19/20

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — “A lot of people come to us, either as their first resort or their last resort,” said John Crotty, head of the county’s veterans service agency that …

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Homeless in the land of plenty

A conversation with John Crotty, Director of Sullivan County Veterans Service Agency

Posted

SULLIVAN COUNTY, NY — “A lot of people come to us, either as their first resort or their last resort,” said John Crotty, head of the county’s veterans service agency that offers a wide range of services to those who have served the nation’s military, whether homeless or in more favorable life circumstances.

“They have a choice to seek help or not,” he explained of his office’s open-door policy. “We’ll do everything we can do to help them. We’ve never turned anyone away.”

While statistics published by the National Alliance to End Homelessness state that, on a single night in January 2019, 37,085 vets experienced homelessness (a 2.1 percent reduction from the year before, and a reported 43.3 percent decrease since 2011).

A further breakdown stated that 22,740 homeless veterans have some type of a roof over their heads, while the other 14,345 were unsheltered.

As various agencies deal with the complex issues of homelessness in America, and homeless vets in particular, it’s important to recognize that government entities define “homelessness” by different methods, so it’s easy to get lost in bureaucratic number games.

The Veterans Administration (VA) defines a homeless vet as someone who “can be literally homeless in a shelter or a place not meant for human habitation, or can be imminently losing their housing with no other housing options, or financial or other resources.”

“You’re either sleeping in the woods or your car, that’s their definition of homeless,” said Crotty.

The VA conducts an annual point-in-time demographic survey—in Crotty’s words “a guesstimate, they’re winging it”—that, in 2010, indicated there are 5,900 vets in the county. In 2014, that number became 5,394. In 2018, the most recent data published, the number had dropped to 4,156. However, he was quick to point out that a more accurate way of looking at this assessment was the number of county veterans (as defined by the 127 zip code) enrolled in the VA medical system: 1,369 in 2010 versus 1,319 in 2018.

But, whatever the numbers and however you count them, it really doesn’t matter if you’re living in a shack out in the woods, under a tarp on a hill, an abandoned hospital right down the road from the local VA office, or couch surfing among your buddies or comrades-in-arms.

“It’s evident that a lot of vets appreciate the VA services and what we do for them, but some of the homeless don’t want anything,” said Crotty.

“I know of two gentlemen who choose to live in cabins on borrowed land; both are fiercely independent, [though] one has received VA benefits. They just don’t want to be around people… it’s a personal choice,” he said, noting that one of the vets “went through some horrific experiences” as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam, while the other vet’s story remains a bit of a mystery since he never filed for benefits and, in Crotty’s words, “simply can’t handle the intrusion of regimentation and bureaucracy.”

It takes a veteran to really understand a vet, and Crotty is no exception to that steadfast rule; he served his nation as a U.S. Marine from 1968-70, stationed in Cuba and Okinawa, Japan. He recounted a story from his past, now about four decades old, like sand passing through the hourglass of time, bearing witness that some things change for the better.

After mustering out as an E4, he went to a local VA office “back in the day” to seek help with some dental issues. He was told by “an old bald guy in a blue suit ‘go get treated and bring us the bills.’” A few days later, Crotty showed up with a stack of bills and was “told by the same old bald guy in the same blue suit ‘I never told you that,’ and was promptly grabbed by a couple of VA cops and tossed out onto the street.”

Things have changed, and Crotty said if you are a vet or family member of a veteran who needs help, “Please give us a call.”

Coping with COVID-19: Sullivan County Veterans Agency responds to the crisis

As the onslaught of COVID-19 upends the world, the local veteran’s agency is no exception in trying to meet the challenges facing getting help to our local vets.

Now that the county’s government center is closed to the public, what used to be Crotty’s open-door policy “give us a call, come on down,and let’s talk over a cup of coffee” has been by necessity switched to “give us a call and make an appointment.”

While the agency’s office is shuttered until further notice, one person is on hand to answer the phones. Crotty said folks who need veteran’s services are “strongly encouraged to call and make an appointment.”

According to Crotty, it’s tough trying to figure of what he referred to as “draconian decrees” handed down from Albany and federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), saying “It makes it tough for the people on the ground. What we are supposed to do, and can we do what makes sense for us?

“The county is permitting us to work from home as opposed to being laid off, which is a Godsend,” he said. “We’re still working with paper files, but we’re getting things done.”

Crotty said that with the pandemic, the number of new claims is actually down, now that the opportunity for face-to-face interviews is in a holding pattern.

But rather than leaving vets and their families in the lurch, the local veteran’s service is taking advantage of the situation by “getting caught up on our backlog” and helping new applicants weather the turbulent seas of navigating government bureaucracy.

“It’s hard to get that over the phone, but we’re going to make it happen, and ultimately we’re going to win,” said Crotty.

“There’s a lot going on in this county that we can be proud of,” he said. He explained that, since the creation in March of the Sullivan County Emergency Community Assistance program (845/807-0925), the American Legion Post #276 of Jeffersonville has donated $500 and AMVET recently kicked in $1,000 while other organizations such as the Elks Club and Lions Club have also pitched in to provide aid during the pandemic.

“It’s the age of uncertainty,” Crotty said. “Everybody wants to do the right thing, and nobody wants to see people get sick.

“There’s people I know who haven’t worked in months, and they don’t know if they’re ever going to be back doing what they were doing…that’s panic city, but we’ll get through this.”

For information about the services to veterans (homeless or otherwise) offered by the Sullivan Veterans Service Agency, located in the County Government Center (100 North Main St., Monticello, NY 12701), call John Crotty at 845/807-0233, fax 845/807-0240 or email crotty@co.sullivan.ny.us.

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