HAMILTON, Ohio -- Five months ago, Lebanon resident Everett Riddle was looking for a home.
The 25-year-old army veteran and father made minimum wage at a grocery store, still struggling to adjust from the horrors of war even two years after his service.
“The last two years of my life were really hectic. I struggled a lot to find work and adapt to civilian life. I felt like I was alone” said Riddle. “I panicked. I was just looking for somewhere to lay my head down.”
Riddle said he had no idea that he qualified for housing assistance and other benefits through the local veterans services department. That’s because he had no idea there was an office in his area to start with.
“I had no idea they even existed,” he said. “I even drove to the wrong place.”
Thousands of other local veterans share his experience, and it’s created an unexpected problem for some veterans’ services offices in the Tri-State. They say not enough veterans are actively seeking their help. In Butler County alone, fewer veterans received assistance in 2012 than in 2009, 2010 or 2011.
“I’m wiling to bet that whatever the veteran population is of any county, at anytime, the veterans service office is financing about five percent of that,” said Rod Eversole, director of Warren County Veterans Service Commission. “We would be hard-pressed to spend all the money that is available.”
It’s why officials at both the Butler and the Warren County Veterans Service Commission say they’re going to spend thousands of dollars more in the upcoming fiscal year to spread the word about their services—and in Warren County, those are dollars that have never been set aside before.
BUTLER COUNTY'S MARKETING PLAN
Butler County Veterans Service officials are planning to increase their advertising budget from $8,000 to $80,000 in 2014. They shared their plans for the $72,000 jump with commissioners Monday morning at a budget hearing in Hamilton.
“We’ve always been very conservative in this category and we feel now that based on other counties experience with billboards that we want to try those in Butler County,” said Curtis McPherson, director of the Butler County Veterans Service Commission.
He’s talking about the presence of veteran’s services billboards seen throughout Clermont County. The Butler County agency is modeling what’s been done there, and has plans to install two billboards of its own with the extra cash—one in Hamilton and another in Middletown, expected to cost about $60,000.
Some commissioners, like T.C. Rogers, expressed concern about the proposed use of those funds, suggesting that that budgeted money should instead go to the veterans themselves.
“Wouldn’t you rather see that increase went less to the marketing?” asked Rogers. “If we have the money, I think that’s more effective.”
Agency officials said they have more than enough money to provide services to their veterans as it stands. They say the advertising budget is separate, and would enable them to hand out more of those untapped funds by finding the people who need them most.
“We have that money, plus,” said McPherson. “Our mission is to get every veteran to come into our office at least once.”
But the Butler County agency struggling to find people to take advantage of its services is also the same agency that turned away a higher percentage of veterans seeking aid than any other Ohio county in 2012, according to an investigation by our news partner, the Hamilton Journal-News/Middletown Journal.
McPherson said that fact is not related to the agency’s call for more people to serve, and he was unapologetic for denying that emergency aid to the 42 percent who requested it.
“We want to start giving more, but we’re still going to maintain the same criteria,” he said. “We deny them because there is something they’ve done that shows they have not been responsible for taking care of their own business…going to casinos, things like that.”
Butler County Commissioners recommended that the agency tap into social media tools and new technology as an inexpensive strategy to recruit more former service members to its offices. But veterans service officials said finding someone who can use that technology has been a challenge.
“We have people going onto the website, but we just can’t keep it up and we don’t understand much about Facebook, about putting it all on there,” said McPherson.
The commissioners said they would enlist the help of the county Internet Technology department to assist the Butler County agency with their online advertising strategies.
Commissioner Don Dixon said he plans to recommend that the agency also consult with an advertising firm to develop a concrete plan
"It's a substantial increase, but it's a whole new program," said Dixon. "Although we don't have
any direct control of the funds, we'll be able to see how the money is spent. We'll see how the programs are effective."
He added that although the large budget increase could raise some alarms, it doesn't mean that the agency will spend all $80,000 it's setting aside.
"Just because they're appropriating it doesn't mean they'll spend it. They do not have a track record of spending money just to spend money," said Dixon.
WARREN COUNTY'S ADVERTISING PLAN
For the first time in the county agency's history, Warren County Veterans Service officials have included advertising in their upcoming budget.
They're setting aside $100,000 to recruit more veterans for their services--a need that the agency's director says is now bigger than ever.
"We've been in existence since 1870 and to the best of my knowledge, we have never even come close to once approaching spending the money that we could," said Eversole.
Each agency can request up to half a millage of the property tax value in their county to serve the veterans that are there, but the State of Ohio or county commissioners cannot tell county veterans service agencies how they must spend that money. That means local veterans agencies must also recruit veterans themselves.
"The burden of creating awareness is not on the military, not on the service organizations, not even on the state. It's on the individual counties," Eversole said.
He said Warren County will be the state's first county to ever take its services to the veterans -- on wheels. He's budgeted $250,000, in addition to the $100,000 already set aside, for a 40-foot RV that will serve as a mobile version of its East Silver Street building to provide information to local veterans and even sign them up.
"We are going to do everything within our power to make every veteran aware that we exist," he said. " We've identified 55 to 60 venues that we will be present at throughout 2014 and the foreseeable future.
Those venues include festivals, nursing homes, parades and veteran-sponsored events. It's an effort to reach out to former service members unable to make the trek to the office themselves.
"You've got to remember that a lot of our veterans in nursing homes are not mobile, do not have family. There's nobody there for a lot of these people," said Eversole.
He said the agency plans to purchase the mobile unit in January or February and will begin using it next spring.
McPherson said Butler County will not purchase a mobile unit for its agency.
"I don't think that it's cost effective to spend $200,000 for a vehicle," said McPherson.
But Eversole thinks it is. He said he hopes it will help his office find more people to serve, like Riddle, who now has a permanent home and works for the Warren County agency, too, as a transportation coordinator.
"At first I was kind of skeptical and didn't believe all of it. Then they told me everything they could do for me. I was so happy. I didn't know anything like this existed," said Riddle. "It seems like I'm on the fast track to a better life."
There are 26,421 veterans in Butler County and 15,319 in Warren County, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.