Sheila McLaughlin Reports:
HAMILTON – Dan Biondo and his wife were in their car getting ready to pull out of the Amvets parking lot on Ross Avenue when a tall, thin man with a white beard and long gray hair under a veterans ball cap tapped on the window.
His clothes were stained and dirty. He looked undernourished. He asked for money so he could buy something to eat. From there a story unfurled that illustrates just how difficult it is for veterans in Butler County to get help from the county’s veterans services commission.
According to state data, the Butler County Veterans Services Commission has a track record of turning away 42 percent of the veterans who apply for emergency assistance. Jeff Waybright, the Army veteran panhandling outside Amvets Post 1983 that day in September, was one of them.
For veterans in Greater Cincinnati, whether they get help from their county depends on where they live, an Enquirer analysis shows. In 2012, the Butler County agency spent $169,500 on emergency aid but refused it to 168 of 391 veterans or dependents.
Veterans in Warren and Clermont counties were more likely to get help. Warren County denied only 4 percent of emergency aid applicants in 2012; Clermont County’s figure was 8 percent. Hamilton County denied 31 percent of emergency assistance applicants for the same year. The state average was 7.4 percent.
“They said I could not get no help no more,” said Waybright, who has been mostly homeless since 2009, after he lost his truck-driving job to a drunken driving conviction.
“There’s a whole lot of veterans out there that they are doing that to. It’s pitiful. It’s like we don’t exist,” Waybright said.
The agency’s director, Curtis McPherson, said he won’t just hand out money to anyone who asks for it.
For 59-year-old Waybright, home has included brief, awkward stays with friends, or in abandoned buildings or a U-Haul truck that he’d crawl into at night after the rental lot closed and leave in the morning before it opened again. He once found shelter under the High Street bridge in Hamilton but left because he said there was too much drinking and drugs among the homeless there.
When times were good – when Waybright was able to get work through a temporary service – he’d stay at cheap hotels until the money ran out.
Facing life back out on the streets with the crisp temperatures of fall drawing near in 2011, Waybright said he tried to kill himself with a combination of pain pills he received for back and nerve issues from doctors at the Veterans Administration. He woke up at Fort Hamilton Hospital and spent a month in rehab, then a limited stay at a homeless shelter that capped the number of days he could stay.
“It’s not a pretty story. I went from being a respected person in the community to a bum. It was degrading,” Waybright said.
Waybright blames his problems – including a failed marriage – on alcoholism. He said he’s now sober.
Waybright’s troubles with the commission started when he went to the agency a second time for help with rent in 2011. He had received a check for about $500 to help pay the rent on a friend’s apartment and for food in 2010.
In 2011, homeless again and needing the same help, Waybright was turned down for rent assistance when he gave the name of a girlfriend as his landlord. Veterans services commission officials checked that information and found out that the woman didn’t own the building. They accused Waybright of trying to cheat the agency and placed him on suspension from receiving any further help.
Three years after Waybright first received emergency relief from the agency, Biondo would find himself intervening. He is president of the judge-appointed five-member Butler County Veterans Commission. He wants to fix the problems he says keep the agency from serving the veterans they are supposed to help.
With Biondo’s attention, Waybright was able to get some assistance from the county veterans services commission after the encounter in the Amvets parking lot. Biondo personally saw to it that Waybright’s case was brought before the board and his suspension overturned.
It took Waybright a month to get a check. He remained homeless in the meantime.
Biondo was upset. He said officials at the organization waited until Waybright received his first Social Security disability check in early October so they could avoid picking up the $450 tab for the first month’s rent on a tiny apartment in Hamilton. Instead Waybright received money for groceries and hygiene products after moving in.
“Having to make that man wait for a month was just awful. We are there to give them assistance at the time that they need it,” Biondo said.
Commission director: ‘Some veterans just aren’t honest’
Like other veterans services commissions around Ohio, the Butler County organization operates under its own set of rules, which vary around the state. In Butler County, the agency’s director, Curtis McPherson, reviews all applications for emergency aid and decides who gets it and who doesn’t after a strict financial workup.
Commissioners can overturn McPherson’s decisions, but only if the veteran appeals the case. Many don’t, Biondo said.
“I hate to believe it myself, but some veterans just aren’t honest,” McPherson said.
He maintains that the emergency assistance isn’t an “entitlement” and can’t be used to supplement a veteran’s limited monthly income. He feels he’s handling requests properly.
Even so, agency commissioners recently told McPherson to increase emergency aid to veterans. As a result, McPherson asked county commissioners to increase the agency’s budget next year by nearly $700,000 to make the county’s 27,000 veterans aware of the organization’s existence. That outreach is expected to up spending for emergency assistance by $500,000.
The increase would expand the agency’s 2014 budget to $2 million compared to this year’s budget of $1.3 million. But it still falls short of what the agency is entitled to by state law.
Veterans services money is funneled through a county’s general fund as a portion of collected property taxes. Butler County Veterans Services is entitled to $3.7 million a year, but, like other veterans services agencies around the state, it does not ask for the full amount.
Waybright’s lifestyle has changed dramatically since getting into an apartment last month.
He now can count on about $950 in monthly income from Social Security for his disability, a low blood pressure condition that keeps him from working because he passes out. Waybright said he technically receives $1,112 a month, but a portion automatically is taken out to repay government-backed student loans from studying a year at a technical college before he joined the Army on a whim in 1975.
He’s also fighting the Veterans Administration’s denial for a disability. Waybright said he sustained a head injury on duty while driving a 5-ton truck in Germany.
He credits Biondo for having a warm place to call home now.
“If it wasn’t for that man, I’d still be on the streets today,” Waybright said. ⬛