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Breaking the cycle: Supporting veterans and military families’ basic needs in local communities 

A young veteran seeking support from his family.

The Bob Woodruff Foundation’s (BWF) Got Your 6 Network organizations provide targeted services to over 20.6 million veterans and military families across the United States. Yet BWF’s 2023 survey of partner organizations showed that numerous individuals and families struggled to meet basic needs. 

The survey found critical gaps between the demand for and availability of essential services like food, financial aid, transportation, and housing. Partners reported that almost all of their clients have these needs, and organizations need assistance to bridge this gap fully. 

In a conversation with Candid insights, Anne Marie Dougherty, CEO of BWF, underscored how a “cascade effect”—a downward spiral of interconnected events—could lead to veterans needing assistance and how reduced assistance can impact their physical and mental health. “Key components to the cascade effect, as they relate to veterans’ services, could include barriers to employment opportunities, lack of social support networks, and access to mental health services, among others,” she said. 

Unmet basic needs set off a cascade effect of instability 

Seventy-two percent of surveyed organizations reported that many or almost all their clients required emergency financial assistance—the most common basic need, followed by food and nutrition services (64%) and transportation (58%). Mental health challenges were the most widely cited health-related concern, with 84% seeing needs among many or almost all clients. 

Dougherty described how the cascade effect might start with veterans experiencing chronic pain and limited mobility as a result of physical injuries sustained during their service—and being unable to receive adequate treatment. “Due to a shortage of resources or lack of knowledge for how to navigate the medical system, their pain worsens, which impacts their ability to work,” she said. “This leads to increased stress and frustration, affecting their mental health. They’re finding it difficult to secure stable employment due to all of this, which brings on financial stress and food insecurity. And the cycle continues.”  

That cycle is exacerbated by significant gaps in service availability. Large majorities of respondents said they could not meet needs for emergency financial assistance (80%), mental health services (71%), housing (76%), food assistance (68%), and legal services (61%).  

Without access to services, veterans face increased financial strain and heightened emotional distress, which, in turn, limits opportunities for personal growth, Doughtery noted. And legal services, which include discharge upgrade assistance for veterans unfairly discharged due to trauma-related behavior, are critical for preventing the cascade effect. Such “bad paper” discharges can severely limit access to veterans’ benefits, leading to cascading effects on education, employment, housing, and overall well-being—including heightened risks of homelessness; anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and traumatic brain injury; substance misuse; and suicide.  

“By supporting legal initiatives like discharge upgrades, veteran treatment courts, and medical-legal partnerships, we can resolve immediate issues and enhance veterans’ access to essential benefits, fostering improved long-term stability,” she said. 

Service providers face their own increasing challenges 

Amid a shortage of resources and ongoing crises, those supporting veterans and their families also are impacted by the cascade effect. 

“Organizations might experience a strain on veterans service providers, burnout among staff, or challenges in program sustainability due to the increased demand for services while dealing with limited resources themselves,” said Dougherty. “The impact on the community includes damage to social cohesion and support, public perception and stigma surrounding veterans’ issues, and even economic consequences, as veterans facing financial hardship due to a lack of resources may increase the burden on local government resources or contribute less to the local economy if they’re struggling to access education and training opportunities.”  

A continuing cascade effect since 2021 

The survey highlights a notable increase since 2021 in demand for health-related support, including assistance with aggression. In addition, despite a slight decrease in demand for employment services and career training, half of the surveyed communities still faced significant challenges in meeting the need for employment. It’s evident that most needs have either remained unchanged or worsened since 2021, due in part to deteriorating conditions during the pandemic. 

Dougherty noted that there is no one-size-fits-all solution since access to a range of supportive services—including mental and physical health care, housing, education, employment, and social support—is critical to mitigating issues that impact veterans’ stability and addressing the cascade effect. “Partnership and collaboration are also very important in any efforts to address root causes that limit some veterans’ access to supportive services,” she said.  

Dougherty emphasized that supporting veterans requires a multi-tiered and comprehensive approach that also includes holistic case management programs, multidisciplinary teams of professionals, veteran hiring initiatives, and community integration efforts. 

How can funders offer visibility and create change?

To effectively bridge gaps in support for veterans and military families, said Dougherty, organizations like BWF have prioritized long-term investments that ensure stability and continuity for veterans programs. It has also advocated for increased collaboration and coordination among stakeholders. Cross-sector partnerships and collaborations could also be actively pursued to leverage collective expertise and resources, she suggested. “By sharing data, insights, and best practices across the field, collective enhancement in supporting veterans and empowering them to achieve stable and successful futures is possible.”  

Photo credit: SDI Productions


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