June 5, 2012

The Washington, DC, Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (OVA) prides itself in serving the District’s estimated 40,000 veterans – helping them receive the benefits they have earned by serving our nation in uniform. Over the past several months, the office has made extraordinary efforts to serve veterans in crisis – connecting government agencies, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and other community partners to help these veterans furnish their newly acquired homes.

Since its establishment in July 2011, the OVA Furniture Program has furnished the homes of nearly 50 veterans, many of whom have families. So far, the beneficiaries of this program have been participants in the Department of Housing and Urban Development-Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program, which links veteran-specific HUD Section 8 housing vouchers with VA case management and counseling services.

Although more than 30,000 veterans are currently housed – and therefore no longer homeless – through the HUD-VASH Program, they may struggle to furnish their apartments upon move-in.

“What do these veterans have when they move into that housing?” said Matt Cary, Director of the DC Office of Veterans Affairs. “Very seldom do they have any furniture unless they kept it in storage forever.”

Cary realized that by helping veterans fully move into their homes, they would be able to concentrate on other issues such as securing a job or utilizing their GI Bill benefits.

By working with the DC VA Medical Center; the DC Department of Human Services, which has a unique partnership with VA to help implement the HUD-VASH Program in the District; and the Southeast Veterans Service Center, a local transitional housing provider for homeless veterans, Cary has been able to effectively receive referrals for the Furniture Program.

The DC Office of Veterans Affairs operates on a relatively small budget of about $372,000. This did not afford Cary, who was appointed director in April 2011, the resources required to start the sort of pilot project he envisioned for his Furniture Program. As a result, he made significant outreach to government agencies and community partners, receiving enough in-kind donations and support to render a traditional budget unnecessary.

“Every aspect of the program is all-volunteer,” Cary said. “It hasn’t cost the taxpayer any money.”

In light of processes such as DoD’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), Cary recognized the opportunities to acquire surplus and unused furniture from local entities. Specifically, he targeted two military installations: Fort McNair and Fort Myer.

Both offered to help Cary by donating mattresses, coffee tables, desks, dressers, sofas, refrigerators, lamps, mirrors, and other furnishings. Fort McNair made an initial donation of $75,000 worth of furniture in July 2011. Shortly thereafter, Fort Myer donated nearly $400,000 worth of furniture. The need for a storage facility was critical.

In July 2011, Cary’s office signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DC Department of General Services granting the Office of Veterans Affairs use of a 16,000-sq.-ft. warehouse – the Oak Hill Storage Facility – in nearby Laurel, Maryland.

At this point, the volunteer support to deliver the donated furniture to veterans in need was lining up as well. The Office of Veterans Affairs signed another MOU with the nonprofit National Capital Veterans Coalition (NCVC), which agreed to administer the Furniture Program every week – a function Cary’s office was unable to perform.

Veterans in the community were instrumental in cleaning out the Oak Hill Storage Facility to prepare it for use. These volunteers included members of local chapters of veteran service organizations such as The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and Vietnam Veterans of America.

Once the warehouse was readied for furniture donations, the next step was to actually transport the furniture from the military installations to the Oak Hill Storage Facility.

“This was a real challenge because NCVC doesn’t have its own vehicle,” Cary said.

He compensated by reaching out to several District government offices, including the Department of Public Works, which offered to provide trucks, drivers and a number of volunteers to pick up furniture from Fort McNair. The Office of the Attorney General pitched in by making sure the activities were in compliance with ethical standards.

The OVA Furniture Program still needed a vehicle to make the Saturday deliveries to veterans’ homes, so Cary reached out to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local No. 639. Without hesitation, the local chapter vowed to help – offering a truck, a driver and a couple of volunteers to move furniture off the trucks and upstairs.

“I went on the first couple of runs to make sure everybody had the right idea about how this program would work,” Cary said. Aside from overseeing the program, he stays involved by personally following up with each veteran who receives a delivery through the program.

Among the HUD-VASH voucher holders who have been impacted so far are several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many Vietnam-era veterans, multiple Desert Storm veterans, a Korean War veteran, and a veteran of the Iran hostage rescue.

“There was one Marine with about eight children,” Cary recalled. Before the support of the OVA Furniture Program, he said, the Marine’s children “were literally sleeping on the floor.

“We showed up with all this stuff, and the kids thought it was like Christmas,” he continued. The Marine was in tears, claiming he could never have furnished his home like this, Cary said.

At present, the program’s demand exceeds its supply – there is a waiting list for veterans to receive donated furniture. As these items become available, they are delivered individually to veterans in need.

“My next hope is that hopefully through some communication between the federal VA and DoD, they will see the need for the program,” Cary said.

Currently, he is in negotiations with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to acquire more surplus furniture for his program. One day he hopes to receive a donated “22-footer” as well.

“We have veterans with commercial licenses that could drive distances to go pick stuff up,” Cary said, which would be possible if the program had its own large truck.

For more information on the OVA Furniture Program as well as the DC Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, visit www.ova.dc.gov.