This Veterans Day, Karen Uberti has reason to believe she’s going to hold on to her home. Even though she wasn’t always sure that she deserved the kind of help other vets get.
Uberti served stateside in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s. She didn’t dodge hostile fire in foreign lands. She received a service-related medical discharge when she developed Crohn’s disease and was rated as 10 percent disabled. As her condition worsened, she had to quit her teaching job in New Haven. She couldn’t pay her heating and electricity bills. She faced foreclosure on her Townsend Avenue home. And she lost custody of one of her two children to her ex-husband, who successfully argued that her illness and subsequent financial problems made it too challenging for her to care for her teenage son.
This year she’s getting help from a new legal program for disabled veterans has already made a difference for more than 100 former military people in the area.
She said she tried on her own to get help from various agencies, without success. At her wits’ end, she went to the West Haven Veterans Administration Healthcare System. She said she’d never gone before because “I see these men and women coming back from war, and I never did anything like that.” She said, even though she knew it was illogical, she worried that claiming any benefits for which she might be eligible could reduce benefits available for those she felt were more deserving.
When she finally went, “They told me I was eligible for all kinds of benefits. They took me by the hand and walked me through [the available services].
“By then my utilities were being shut off, the house was cold, and my ex had already taken custody of my son. The VA stopped my utilities from being shut off. They got me hooked up with Community Action Agency, and I applied for fuel, and they came and weatherized my home. I own my house, but I couldn’t maintain it or heat it.”
She said everyone at the VA and the other agencies were “absolutely wonderful.” Meanwhile, she was waiting to see if her service-related disability would be increased from ten percent. It was—all the way to 100 percent, providing her with some real income for the first time since she left her job.
But Uberti still faced serious problems—and lots of stress. She said she goes to the VA a couple times a week. When her doctors learned about her ongoing problems, they referred her to the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
The Center opened its virtual “doors” (it has no office) in September 2009 with a mission to provide pro bono services to disabled veterans with housing, mental health or substance abuse issues.
Uberti said the center’s founder and co-director, Margaret Middleton, “put me in touch with an attorney, Gary Sklaver, who’s helping me renegotiate the loan on my house. Another attorney, Al Ghiroli, helped me deal with my custody issues. He arranged representation for my son and daughter—guardians ad leitem. I’m not trying to get custody back, but he monitors the situation and keeps track of problems that arise. It’s an ongoing thing, and he’s doing it all pro bono.”
She sounded astonished at the speed with which she got connected to the attorneys.
“Margaret referred me one morning and I got a call from an attorney that afternoon. Margaret checks in with me to make sure I’m okay. Taking the stress off financially and legally was huge, so I can focus on my medical condition.”
Asked if she was confident her troubles would be satisfactorily sorted out, she replied, “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to save my house. I know I have a wonderful attorney and if I don’t save my house I know I’m going to be okay, whereas I couldn’t say that last year.”
Middleton said the project sees clients at the Errera Community Care Center for veterans in West Haven, just over the city line. Co-founder Howard Udell was already doing volunteer work there, “and when they found out he was a lawyer they started flocking in with legal questions. I thought this was a great place to reach vets with mental health, homelessness and substance abuse problems.” They incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation and receive no state or federal funding. But the $150,000 they’ve raised, through the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and other sources, has been enough to put Middleton to work full time. Udell is retired and continues to volunteer his time.
The center gets its volunteer attorneys through various legal organizations. “We found that Connecticut attorneys are extremely interested in volunteering on behalf of homeless vets,” she said, adding that many have worked with several clients. The center has served 112 vets in the past year, mostly from greater New Haven. “In 2011, I’m hoping to hire another attorney,” Middleton said.
Supporters of the new center (including U.S. Sen.-elect Dick Blumenthal, pictured) gathered at Caseus Restaurant Tuesday night to celebrate its first anniversary. Supporters—including Day Pitney, Murtha Cullina, Robinson and Cole, David Rosen and Associates, Stratton Faxon, The Udell Family Foundation, and Chadbourne and Parke—helped raise $70,000 to continue free legal assistance for vets.