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LA County exploring a system of 'battle buddies' helping other veterans

MIAMI BEACH- NOVEMBER 12:  Army special forces vet Tony Junot holds an American flag during a Veterans Day ceremony November 12, 2007 in Miami Beach, Florida. Veterans Day honors military veterans from all wars that the United States has fought.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Tony Junot
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Army veteran Tony Junot holds an American flag during a Veterans Day ceremony November 12, 2007 in Miami Beach, Florida.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has taken a step toward creating a new peer support network to better connect local veterans to housing and services.

On Tuesday, the board approved a motion asking the Los Angeles County Health Agency, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority, and other agencies to team up with the VA and veteran-focused nonprofits to create a plan for establishing a “veteran peer access network” in L.A. County. 

The issue passed on the the consent calendar, a process the board uses to approve several items together in one motion when they’re unlikely to be held for public debate. The plan is due back for review in 90 days.

According to the motion introduced by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger, Southern California veterans who run into trouble often don’t know what services are available or how to take advantage of them, which “can lead at-risk veterans toward trajectories of financial despair, family discord, isolation, substance misuse, homelessness and/or involvement with the justice system."

“The systems are complicated to navigate,” said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the director of the county’s Department of Mental Health. “And folks in the military community tend to be quite prideful. At times they feel invincible, and are reluctant to reach out for care, even though they need help.”

Sherin has experience bridging the gap between veterans and services in the civilian world. He joined LA County in 2016, after leading initiatives with military communities for Volunteers of America. He was previously the director of mental health for the Miami VA Healthcare System.

Sherin said the goal of the peer network is to employ veterans who are trained to navigate the system and break down barriers to care. 

The Board of Supervisors' motion calls the concept “battle buddies at home.”

“There’s a level of trust and familiarity that evolves in the shared experience of military service that's a powerful tool,” Sherin said. “A very well trained clinician may not be as effective at engaging a veteran as another veteran.”

Elected leaders in Southern California are searching for ways to make a dent in the growing population of people spending their nights unsheltered on the street or in cars and tents. The homeless veteran population swelled by 57 percent in LA County last year, to 4,828, according to the snapshot provided by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority’s annual count.

The LA County Department of Mental Health is already experimenting with peer-led services for residents battling mental, emotional, and substance abuse disorders. In May 2017, the department opened a peer resource center in Koreatown staffed by people who have experienced challenges--they’re formerly homeless or in addiction recovery, for example--and trained to help others get through the same struggles by connecting them to county services.