While Santa Barbara County’s veterans generally fare well, the support community lacks "a center of gravity," and mental health issues and access to health care and housing are persistent problems, according to an assessment released Thursday.

Titled “Serving Those Who Have Served,” the assessment surveys the county's veterans “landscape” and offers recommendations for improving the delivery of services to help them adjust to civilian life and obtain services they are entitled to.

The 70-page report was commissioned by the Santa Barbara Foundation and prepared by consultants Nancy Berglass and Phillip Carter, who have considerable experience in conducting similar assessments across the United States.

Berglass delivered an overview of the assessment Thursday morning for more than 75 representatives of veterans service agencies, nonprofit organizations and local governments as well as interested individuals and veterans themselves at Root 246 in Solvang.

“I think you might be surprised at how much we look like the rest of the country,” Berglass told the audience, adding that they also found some areas where the county is vastly different than other states and the nation as a whole.

“Most veterans in Santa Barbara County do well after service, especially compared to the rest of the country,” she said. “Those who struggle have two main issues — access to health care and access to affordable housing.”

Local services lacking

County veterans’ difficulty getting access to health care is the result of Veterans Administration resources being limited due to the relatively low veterans population here and the agency’s decision to base its services in Los Angeles.

“The whole region of Central California is being underaddressed by VA services,” Berglass said. “This is not just health care; this is benefits.”

She said it’s difficult for veterans to travel to Los Angeles to obtain services — at least a day and a half is spent on the road — and the delay in getting an appointment can be a deterrent to seeking help.

For example, the delay in getting a primary medical care appointment in Santa Maria ranged from 10.85 days on July 1, 2015, to 25.99 days on July 1, 2016, dropping to a low of 6.16 days on July 1 this year, according to figures supplied by the Veterans Administration, although other agencies are involved with assisting veterans.

“They’d say, ‘1.58 days? How about 1.58 months?’” Berglass said, referring to the lag time for an appointment in Santa Barbara.

Such delays can also have more severe impacts. The appointment delays for getting mental health care on those same dates were 7.71, 17.4 and 8.89 days, respectively.

“If you’re dealing with a veteran with a severe mental health crisis, and you call and they tell you you can get an appointment in a week and a half … .”

Berglass said the problem of affordable housing isn’t specific to veterans but affects everyone in the county, although she said it’s difficult to get a handle on just how many veterans are homeless.

“In Santa Barbara County, there are chronically homeless people who show up in just about every survey,” she said, and while there are plenty of emergency shelter beds available, veterans can’t access them because of “bad paper” — a discharge that’s less than honorable — or because they aren’t clean and sober.

But most veterans do have homes, although sometimes it takes a second income to pay for it.

Actually, she said, the 22,000 to 23,000 veterans in the county generally earn more than the nonveterans, probably because most of them are older white males, who as a demographic generally tend to make more money than others.

“However, wait till I show you how much that income is — not enough to live on,” she said, later pegging it at $46,000 a year. “That’s the high mark.”

Providers fragmented

The report was also critical of the “lack of infrastructure and sustainable collaboration” among the county’s veteran services providers.

“The Santa Barbara County veterans support community lacks a center of gravity, even if you break it into north and south,” Berglass said. “And that’s so frustrating because so many people and organizations are doing so much good work.”

She said the county’s stakeholders are failing to go after the federal and nonprofit grant dollars that are available and gathering information about veterans but not sharing it with each other.

They often don’t know each other, and they disagree about the best approaches to serve and support veterans, she said, pointing out the difference between those that “celebrate” veterans with parades and events and those that “serve” veterans with various types of assistance.

“There are a lot of folks who are not playing nicely with each other in the sandbox, and there’s no need for it,” she said.

“We were shocked at how many of you didn’t know each other,” she added. “It was jarring. It was more so than any place else in the country.”

Berglass also indicated the cultural differences they found between the north and south portions of the county have an impact on how services are provided.

Those in the north were “more personal,” while those in the south were “more bureaucratic.”

“The sea of good will is not being well navigated,” she said later.

Room for improvement

The report concluded with a number of ways to improve veterans services.

It recommends developing a mechanism for cooperation and coordination of veteran services, possibly by creating a central point of activity and communication for the veteran community — possibly the Santa Barbara Veterans Building.

Berglass said someone needs to facilitate cooperation, collaboration and communication among and between public, private and nonprofit organizations serving veterans.

Organizations that don’t specifically serve veterans can provide them with better, more efficient and more effective services by increasing their understanding of the terms, needs, values and conditions that define veteran “culture.”

“Expand access to health care,” Berglass said. “I know it’s not easy, but it’s very important.”

She said agencies and organizations must increase their ability to attract and leverage external funding, especially federal money.

The business community, which the report said “appears less formally engaged with veterans” than in other comparable communities, must be educated about veterans and become more proactive in their lives, Berglass said.