The phrase “swords to plowshares” — symbolizing the constructive peacetime reapplication of military weaponry and militaristic impulses — comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 2:4): “And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The mission of the San Francisco nonprofit, Swords to Plowshares — executed through direct aid and public policy advocacy — is to help military veterans lead healthy, productive, and dignified civilian lives. U.S. veterans face significant challenges, including a suicide rate that doubles that of the general population. More than 20 percent of veterans bear a service-related disability, and by some estimates, veterans account for more than 10 percent of America’s homeless population.
Founded in 1974, Swords to Plowshares initially sought to redress a deficit of care for Vietnam veterans within the Department of Veteran Affairs and other organizations that had previously extended generous benefits to the returning soldiers of World Wars I and II. However, according to Executive Director Michael Blecker, “Vietnam vets were a whole different story, where they were kind of viewed as an undeserving class of military veterans and got very little.”
Blecker, himself a veteran, joined the organization in 1976. “We got very little help from the VA at that period of time, and that went for about ten years. All of our money came through providing employment and training, and we had one or two grants,” he said. Today, in addition to its vocational training and job placement assistance, Swords to Plowshares offers health services, supportive housing, money management, and legal help for veterans.
Given the “fairly distinct” nature of these components, they often require separate funding sources, and these sources “trace the way the public sector has evolved in taking care of its citizens,” Blecker noted. “Legal services are really hard to fund; the government isn’t going to fund you to sue them, to advocate against them. There was a time when they would fund that, but Reagan took over and just crushed that,” Blecker added.
Blecker further stated, “That was different from, say, doing job training, which was a deep part of what came out of World War II. Even though that’s been greatly reduced since, there’s still some legacy of the Department of Labor that funds job training.”
Blecker described resources for grassroots urban healthcare as materializing out of the AIDS crisis, but direct funding for social housing from the Department of Housing and Urban Development dried up in the same period. “Again, Reagan attacked that, so we had this whole new arrangement where we had to do business with banks and tax credits and all that stuff,” he noted.
Last year, 62 percent of the Swords to Plowshares $19 million budget came from the government. The largest private donor was the Walmart Foundation.
For veterans who come to Swords to Plowshares, their first point of contact is typically the Frontline Drop-in Center at 1060 Howard St. Here, case managers provide crisis intervention and mental health assessments for at-risk veterans who come in off the street, coordinate appointments with others, and follow up as necessary. In the phrase of Director of Supportive Services Jacob Donnelly, the Drop-in Center is a “safe space,” where the full-time staff of seven can link veterans to any of a range of internal or external social services, whether that means one of the 421 beds in Swords to Plowshares’ transitional and permanent housing environments or a pro bono lawyer who will fight for discharge upgrades for veterans whose discharge statuses deny them VA benefits. Veterans who served fewer than two years, or who were dishonorably discharged, do not qualify for treatment at Veterans Health Administration hospitals and often need guidance in accessing care through MediCal.
Drop-In Center Coordinator La June Davis has sought to make 1060 Howard St. a welcoming place where veterans can stop by for a cup of coffee or a free breakfast, to watch TV or say hello to a neighbor, or for a special event, such as the recent winter coat giveaway. Donnelly noted that, in the future, the Drop-In Center will be adding “social groups” — mentioning, for instance, a chess enthusiast veteran who would like to teach the game to others at the center. Davis acknowledged that one of the hardest parts of her job comes from witnessing the struggles of veterans who — though they may use the Drop-In Center for basic services, such as for mail delivery or internet access — “don’t realize” the full extent of their own need.” In this regard, one of the goals of the Drop-In Center is to connect veterans who show up for one particular service to a broader network of programs of which they might be unaware.
As Vietnam vets enter senior citizenry — thus necessitating, for instance, the expensive installation of an elevator — for which Blecker is scrambling to locate funding — in a decommissioned three-story Presidio barracks that Swords to Plowshares converted to veteran housing.
The organization also needs to meet the needs of a younger generation of soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars attempting to reintegrate into civilian life. In this way, Swords to Plowshares seeks to educate itself continuously on the shifting needs of its clientele and to improve its methods of outreach, including social media. In Blecker’s view, its legal services have been especially useful for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who often “had health conditions that weren’t treated well when they were in the military, or that didn’t give them problems until after they got out, and were trying to get compensated for that.”
Iraq and Afghanistan also saw an increase in women soldiers — many of whom “won’t come to a veteran-specific organization,” Blecker admitted. But “there are some community providers where their primary focus is women, and what we try to do is to make sure that those agencies understand the military and screen for the fact, since they might not even think that the person in front of them has served in the military and may be eligible for benefits.”
More information can be obtained about Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco by viewing the website athttps://www.swords-to-plowshares.org/