by Jessica Walker
Pittsburgh may be the city of bridges, but one bridge was missing: the connection between veterans and their support providers.
Previously, referrals to connect with services such as those for education and counseling would be faxed to an agency. These referrals often resulted in unanswered phone calls and unresolved issues, leaving veterans without the help they needed.
“A lot of the time, veterans might be told to go to places just because they have the word ‘veteran’ in the title, but there can be restrictions such as discharge status or branch of the military that they might not know about,” says PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh coordination center supervisor Mark Schiemer. “We needed to make sure veterans weren’t falling through the cracks.”
Opened in Pittsburgh in October 2015, PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh is a coordination center that acts as a single-access point to connect military service members and their families to a network of public, private, and nonprofit organizations. Services range from healthcare and housing to mentoring and fitness opportunities throughout Allegheny, Butler, and Westmoreland counties.
The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University created PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh as a part of its national efforts to ensure every service member, veteran, and family member has streamlined access to quality resources that will assist them in achieving their goals. The program received funding in part from the Mary Hillman Jennings Foundation, along with the Heinz Endowments and DSF Charitable Foundation.
PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh is one of four centers of its kind currently operating throughout the United States, with additional Serves markets established in New York (NYServes: New York City) and North Carolina (NCServes: Metrolina and NCServes: Raleigh/Durham).
All military service members can utilize PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh, regardless of discharge status, age, or branch. They talk with intake specialists who are aware each provider’s services and criteria to facilitate accurate referrals. As veterans themselves and members of Pittsburgh Mercy, these intake specialists know firsthand the issues facing their clientele.
“If a veteran is having financial problems, for instance, we can have discussions to figure out whether that’s due to unemployment or housing to address the root issue,” says Schiemer, a PA National Guard veteran with more than 10 years of working with nonprofit service providers.
Approximately 235,000 veterans live in southwestern Pennsylvania, with another 5,200 new veterans moving here every year, according to a study by the Center for a New American Society. Although these veterans are aware of local services, only 38 percent reported satisfaction with these benefits.
With PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh’s software, staff members are able to track a referral until resolution with an agency. If a particular agency is unable to fulfill a referral for any reason, it can be taken back into the system and sent to a different agency. This process now takes minutes, versus the hours writing new referrals used to take.
“All of the service providers have been vetted, and we can go outside of our network to get the services our veterans need,” says PAServes: Greater Pittsburgh network director Jean Coyne. “We’re having a lot of success early on.”
More than 500 veterans and their families have already utilized the program, with each averaging two referrals. The ultimate goal is empower and engage these individuals within their own communities.
“We don’t hand a list of phone numbers to veterans and have them make the calls. We make the calls for them,” says Schiemer. “We want to get veterans connected to the service they need the first time.”