By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Sometimes it takes a nation to raise up a veteran, and a community to love them.
Nobody knows that better than Eric Verzola, director of veterans services for Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Verzola was among dozens of Kansas City region community leaders attending, but one of only a handful invited to speak at the Oct. 29 Veterans Employment Summit, held at the Liberty Memorial National World War I Museum.
Called by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with Cabinet Secretary Bob McDonald front and center, Verzola told of the early success of St. Michael’s Veterans Center, in business for just one year to provide stable housing for homeless military veterans.
Spearheaded by Catholic Charities, St. Michael’s is the result of a collaboration of a long list of private and public organizations that recognized that while many veterans are homeless, none are hopeless.
“We are doing what ‘right’ looks like,” said Verzola, a former U.S. Army artillery officer.
So right, said Verzola, that next month, St. Michael’s is planning on breaking ground on a project that will more than double the number of apartments available to homeless veterans on its campus next to Kansas City’s VA Hospital, and in addition provide thousands of square feet of space to provide onsite, where they live, the services that veterans need to resume a stable life.
While the focus of the summit was on encouraging more employers to hire U.S. military veterans, Verzola said that for some of them, the most basic of human needs must first be addressed.
“You got to give them a safe place to live first,” he said. “As any military person knows, you first have to improve your (physical) position.”
Verzola told the story of one veteran who had been “couch-surfing” with friends and relatives until he wore out his welcome.
“He became homeless,” he said. “When I first saw him, I knew we could help him.”
In just a few weeks of having a roof over his head and services he needed, the veteran found a job and his own apartment.
“He is now on to better things,” Verzola said.
In just over a year, St. Michael’s has become a magnet to a variety of agencies. Some, like the Knights of Columbus, hold barbecues for the residents. Others, like the VFW and American Legion, provide veteran-to-veteran ears to listen, and to remind all the residents of their dignity and that their service to their country has not been forgotten.
“It’s been a team effort,” Verzola said.
Such a team effort is vital to the economic success of the entire Kansas City region, said Bob Marcusse, president of the Kansas City Area Economic Development Council.
Both Marcusse and Kansas City Mayor Sly James told Secretary McDonald that they would like to turn Kansas City into a magnet for veterans just released from military service by expanding access to the wide array of services available to them through the G.I. Bill of Rights.
It makes economic sense, said Marcusse.
“We work very hard to recruit companies that are growing,” he said.
“It is becoming increasingly important that we be able to offer them the workforce that will allow them to be successful. We need every competitive advantage we can get,” he said.
One advantage would be a workforce full of trained, skilled and motivated military veterans, Marcusse said.
Mayor James couldn’t second that motion fast enough.
“We want to make Kansas City a place to come because there is support for them,” he said.
“If they need anything, we need to help them,” Mayor James said. “They were out there helping us every day, and they didn’t ask what we needed. They just gave it.”
The mayor spoke of the seriousness of Kansas City to reach out to veterans by singling out St. Michael’s Veterans Center.
“Homeless veterans need help. With St. Michael’s Phase I and II, we are demonstrating our interest,” he said.
Then he turned to the scores of employers invited to the summit.
“Veterans know what honor is. They know how to be in a chain of command,” Mayor James said.
“If you have the ability to make that commitment to hire veterans, God will reward you in heaven and people on earth will thank you. Both of those things are worth struggling for,” he said.
If there were any doubt that Kansas City is well on its way to a reputation for welcoming military veterans, David McIntyre dispelled it.
McIntyre, co-founder and CEO of Tri-West Health Alliance, said of the seven cities that Tri-West looked to expand its regional centers into, Kansas City was the only one to roll out the red carpet.
Established in 1996, Tri-West has been building a provider network under a Veterans Affair contract for veterans to receive medical and mental health care, particularly in areas where the nearest VA facility is miles away.
“We reached out to seven cities. There is only one community that chased us,” McIntyre said.
“In this community, the governor, the mayor, the economic development community, everyone came together to say, ‘Will you come? We want veterans to be served,’” McIntyre said. “We operate in nine other communities, and that’s not always the case.”
Tri-West brought 500 jobs to Kansas City. Of those, 85 percent have been filled by military veterans.
“We’ll probably be hiring more people in Kansas City. This is a place where we will grow,” McIntyre said.
Secretary McDonald, in response to a question from a university official who said the VA stipend to veterans in college needs to be raised from its present $1,100 a month, said that the Veterans Affairs Department could do more with more resources, and that will take Congressional action.
“That (stipend) is in the law, and we need to contact our members of Congress to change that,” he said.
“It is also written into the same law that when a veteran goes on spring break, they go off the G.I. Bill and do not get paid for that week. That makes no sense at all,” he said.
But under the present political climate, and especially after the national scandal of 2014 in which it was revealed that veterans face waits of up to months to receive basic VA services, McDonald said the political climate is difficult.
“A lot of things are said about the VA. Some of them are true, and some of them aren’t,” said McDonald, the former Procter & Gamble CEO who took the cabinet post after the scandal.
“But there is no more important thing in life than making a difference in the life of at least one person,” he said. “We got to change that political climate.”