Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Jobs program for disabled vets in Ohio finds no one a job

From The Toledo Blade in Ohio:

Equipped with more than $400,000 in federal and state grant funding and an innovative plan, Craig Gebers was ready to help disabled veterans in Lucas County find jobs.

But a year and almost $200,000 later, the program provided no jobs to disabled veterans, placed only two in some type of job training program, and, despite an identified target market of 900 disabled veterans, gave preliminary vocational counseling to 87 veterans.

The Pathways to Employment program for disabled veterans was launched by Mr. Gebers using grants from the Lucas County Veterans Service Commission and the Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, which provided him with $100,000 and $200,000 respectively.

Armed with the substantial local investments, Mr. Gebers, director of workforce development for Network, an employment program that works out of The Source, Lucas County's one-stop jobs center, was able to secure hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal match grants to support employment programs for disabled veterans, many with mental health issues.

More than a year after the initial funds were provided, local officials are not pleased with the program's results.

"At the end of the contract, when we looked at the numbers [of individuals served], it was clear the veterans service commission got a very, very low return on their dollar," said Jacqueline Martin, the executive director of the mental health and recovery board.

And members of the veterans service commission's board say they also have questions about why the program failed to generate sufficient interest and why it took so long for them to learn of the problems it faced.

Board member Patrick Grzybowski said Mr. Gebers had been asked on multiple occasions for an audit of the program and that to his knowledge, one had not been produced.

After repeated inquiries by The Blade, Mr. Gebers produced a budget for the program that showed since the $420,000 was activated, almost $128,000 has been spent on staff salaries, benefits, and development; $43,700 on rent, administrative cost, office supplies, and equipment, and $16,000 on outsourced services for veterans such as diagnostic testing, professional evaluations, and vocational training.

Mr. Gebers admitted recently that the program didn't work as planned.

"This is one of the programs that hasn't worked because we could not get the vets to engage," he said.

"We have multiple programs that get people work, and I'm very disappointed that this program didn't work."And though the program officially ended Aug. 31, at which point no additional veterans will be enrolled, the more than $200,000 of funding that remains will be drawn on until it is depleted.

Mr. Gebers estimated 20 veterans would continue with the program and any veterans enrolled after the funding runs dry will have their cases turned over to the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission, which veterans may call at 419-866-5775.

The veterans job program was supposed to thrive in Lucas County, which has the sixth-largest veteran population in Ohio. Between 10 and 15 percent of the veteran population is disabled.

According to the June, 2008, proposal Mr. Gebers presented to the veterans service commission, in 2007 about 3,000 veterans -- 700 of them disabled -- sought employment services at The Source.

Of those, seven were matched with jobs, according to the Workforce Investment Board's 2008 "State of the Workforce" report.

Mr. Gebers said he looked for grant opportunities to serve disabled veterans because they were "probably being underserved and required more intensive-level services" than were then available at The Source.

Lee Armstrong, executive director of the veterans commission, said the organization had expected, at the very least, to receive monthly reports from Mr. Gebers on the status of the program. Mr. Armstrong said he and the members of the commission's board became concerned when those reports were not forthcoming.

"I did not give weekly reports to them," Mr. Gebers said.

"That was my fault. I was giving verbal updates to [VSC Executive Director] Lee Armstrong -- I thought I was telling him we were just not getting people."The program's two employees, Ana Dobbins and Fred Vallongo, both said they did not believe administrators had done sufficient research on disabled veterans' unique situations when devising the program.

They said often the program and the benefits it offered competed with other federally funded benefits: Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Veterans Association disability benefits.

They said their clients' fear of losing the disability benefits they already received kept them from using the services the program offered.

While Mr. Gebers said that in retrospect there were things he would have done differently, he lays the blame for the program's failures on clients' unrealistic expectation of instant employment.

"The attitude of people who come in [to The Source] is, 'I want a job, give me a job today,' " he said. "It doesn't work like that."He said it was very frustrating the program did not help more disabled veterans.

"With all the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, with all the mental health issues, we thought the population was there," Mr. Gebers said. "We tried to make it work, but it didn't."