Wednesday, October 28, 2009

“Bloomberg Spends $85 million, Vets get a Breakfast!”

By Joseph A. Bello
October 29, 2009

At the beginning of October, Mayor Bloomberg's campaign held a catered breakfast for veterans, complete with photo-ops and a 10 minute speech from the Mayor at an American Legion Post in Queens. They brought along some current and former elected officials; as well as the CEO of the Intrepid Sea-Air Space Museum to fire up the audience. Mayor Bloomberg’s voice filled as he said: “Thank you for your service.” “We must never forget.” “We owe you so much.”

But these words, from this Mayor - over eight years, are both too familiar and ring false to the majority of New York City’s veterans.

The breakfast was put together at the last minute by the Bloomberg campaign as political cover to provide a photo/video opportunity after a September 27th New York Daily News article showed that of Bloomberg's 400+ endorsements, not one of them was from a veteran’s organization. The only such endorsement, as the article noted, was from a fake veterans group.

With Election Day less than one week away, Mayor Bloomberg is pulling out all the stops, having spent over $85 million (so far) to both re-brand and re-introduce himself. His campaign is using the slogan – “Progress. Not Politics.” To borrow Tom Robbins’ line from the Village Voice – “The first word is a debate worth having. The next two are simply lies.”

Many veterans, including myself, have been writing over the past eight years how Mayor Bloomberg’s record on veterans’ issues shows he doesn’t practice what he preaches. My friend Luis Carlos Montalván and I noted in an article, just as the campaign season was beginning, some major discrepancies with Mayor Bloomberg’s veteran’s record, most notably with his Office of Veterans Affairs.

However, as the fight for votes continue, the Bloomberg campaign is trying to re-define Michael Bloomberg as the Mayor who cares for the troops and for this city’s veterans.

Like Social Security and Health Care, supporting the troops and respecting veterans has become a political third rail issue over these past eight years. Even though most people are no longer engaged in what is happening overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, they nevertheless believe that veterans are being taken care of when they return home. For the majority of people, that starts and ends with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

However, the VA cannot do this alone. This is why we have a State Division of Veterans Affairs and a local government veteran’s affairs office run by the Mayor. But what happens when the local government agency designed to help veterans can’t help? For veterans in New York City that’s exactly what’s been happening over these past eight years.

In early September, Mayor Bloomberg publicly stated that he was running on his record. With the October 3rd breakfast the first sign of outreach to the veteran’s community during this election season, let’s look at the actual record:

The Bloomberg campaign’s website touts the Mayor’s record on veteran homelessness. Notably absent is his record on the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs; the Extended Benefits issue; the Disabled Veteran Vendors issue; the Cold War property tax exempt issue; Veterans Employment and Training; St. Albans; and a host of other issues. Most importantly, it doesn’t state what his plans are for veteran’s issues over the next four years if re-elected. Let’s break down Mayor Bloomberg’s veteran’s record:

“Mike has repeatedly said, "No veteran should be sleeping on the streets or in the shelters in New York City." To help make sure no veterans end up on our streets, Mike has created a joint Task Force to end veteran homelessness, opened the first ever veterans-only homeless shelter in the United States, and forged an agreement with the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs to secure a grant that will be used to house more than 1,000 homeless veterans in NYC.”

Reality: The joint Task Force was built from members/groups that came from outside New York City, and included only those major non-profit groups that had money, ensuring little to no input from the local community who serve homeless veterans. In addition, the group has not met since late 2007! According to the Task Force’s own report the city was to achieve its goal of ending homelessness for veterans in New York City by December 31, 2009. This obviously will not happen as media reports show that the number of homeless adults (and children) in New York City has actually risen.

Mayor Bloomberg did not open the first ever veteran-only homeless shelter in the United States. It was former Mayor Ed Koch who did, creating the Borden Avenue Veterans Residence (BAVR) in the 1980’s after working with Vietnam veterans who were concerned about the large number of homeless Vietnam veterans in New York City.

Mayor Bloomberg did not bring 1000 section 8 vouchers to New York. They are part of a national program that has distributed section 8 vouchers throughout the country. The program was active for many years in NY. New York's money ($9.4 million) was part of $75 million being set aside to provide permanent housing for an estimated 10,000 homeless veterans across the country. And just because “vouchers” have been distributed, that should not be equated with vouchers actually being “used” by veterans!

“Adequate healthcare for veterans is critical, and Mike has worked hard to ensure that veterans have access to the specialized health services they need. He started a joint venture with the V.A. to create a homeless intake center specifically designed for veterans that offers additional healthcare, mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment and other assistance with issues important to veterans.”

Is this true? Well…the opening of the Intake Center at Chapel Street in Brooklyn has mainly assisted those homeless veterans who meet the VA’s definition/eligibility criteria. New York City’s definition of a veteran is different than the federal government's – many vets in the shelter system may have honorable service, but don't meet the definition of continuous service that the VA requires. Many veterans also question why the Bloomberg administration made homeless veterans go to Brooklyn’s Project TORCH when there's one at the Manhattan VA Medical Center, located only blocks away from the 30th Street Bellevue Intake Center, even with statistics showing that nearly 60% of all homeless men are in Manhattan. Yet the city has closed the intake center on E. 30th Street to make room for a luxury hotel.

“Mike recognizes the unique needs and contributions of Veterans. That’s why he created a one-stop shop multi-service center for vets at Veterans Memorial Hall and established the Veterans Advisory Board, which advises the Office of Veterans Affairs about issues impacting the veteran community to help local officials become more aware on how to better serve America’s heroes.”

This could be furthest from the truth.

Aside from the Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA), there is no real one-stop multi-service center for veterans at the Veterans Memorial Hall. If you were to visit the Veterans Memorial Hall at 346 Broadway (8th floor) you can see this for yourself. It is, as most veterans know, a silent hallway of darken offices with MOVA offering little to no programs and relying on so-called “partnerships” to refer veterans for help.

Mayor Bloomberg did not establish the Veterans Advisory Board; it was in the City Charter for years before he became Mayor. In fact, the board’s meetings over the past several years have been so sporadic that they have not done any outreach nor held any meetings outside of 346 Broadway to help any local officials become aware of the issues. The members themselves have been hampered by administration officials who consistently tell the board what they can and cannot do. On top of this, the board often violates New York State’s “Open Meetings Law.”

As veterans have witnessed during those times when there has been any progress on a particular issue, it has been on a piecemeal basis. The administration starts programs with little to no input from the community and when there is input, it’s usually after the fact. And when the administration makes a decision on an issue, like the Extended Benefits Issue for City Employees, it is (in essence) forced onto the community - a business like, take it or leave it approach from a community that, like the eroding middle class, is unorganized.

As studies and surveys consistently show, veterans returning from active service often face an array of issues during their transition from a military to a civilian lifestyle. The sacrifice does not end when they return home to their families and communities. For many veterans, the hardest and most enduring sacrifice begins the moment they return home.

So as Mayor Bloomberg is now asking veterans to vote for him – based on his eight-year record on veteran’s affairs, then the answer should be no.

However, if Mayor Bloomberg does win re-election to a third term, the question will remain – What will he do for veterans over the next four years? Will he finally step to the plate, start reaching out and seriously deal with the issues or will veterans get more of the same – lots of thanks and free breakfasts? It has been said that part of the problem is that Mayor Bloomberg doesn’t understand veterans. He has had eight years to learn. With the arrival of Election Day in less than one week, and another catered breakfast planned for Veteran’s Day, the breakfasts are not getting it done. For veterans, there is something worse than being used as backdrops at a press conference and that’s watching those who use us, work and vote against us. That’s not progress. That’s politics.


Joe Bello served 11 years in the US Navy/Naval Reserve and is a veterans advocate in New York City.