According to a recent story by WSB-TV, the manager of the local Veterans Support Organization (VSO) Jon Gravely is a convicted felon, and the organization contributes a miniscule portion of their donations to veterans.
The president of the VSO had a few issues with that.
“The story was factually incorrect and woefully misleading,” Richard VanHouten wrote in an email to Snellville Patch after we reached out for comment. “The finished story was unfair journalism and unfortunately it inflicted damage to our organization.”
The Veterans Support Organization is a non-profit focused on getting veterans off the street and into the workforce, according to their mission statement. The majority of its donations are received at local stores in a way similar to the Salvation Army.
While WSB-TV reported that “once the money hits the bucket, only a small percentage is donated to veterans in need,” the nonprofit’s 990 IRS forms, obtained by Snellville Patch, tell a different story.
Line item 12 says that in 2010, the most recent year available, the program took in $8,577,698 in donations. It gave $318,890 in grants directly to individuals and organizations, which totals around 17 percent. But, according to VanHouten, the nonprofit gives a lot more than just grants.
It spent $4,633,729 on a work program that pays veterans to raise funds for the VSO, and $1,232,212 on housing for homeless veterans. The concept of paying veterans to solicit donations is one that has received plenty of criticism. Detractors say that the program only teaches the men to “panhandle,” but VanHouten explained it this way in his email to Patch:
“The entire philosophy of our organization is to provide homeless and unemployed veterans a job and a second opportunity to get back on their feet… VSO hires homeless veterans (and non-veterans) and provides them a base pay job with added incentives to solicit donations in front of local stores (similar to Salvation Army). In 2012, we provided over 450 jobs like this to veterans across this country. Without jobs provided by VSO, these veterans would be broke, homeless and hopeless. If VSO didn’t provide these jobs many of these veterans would remain unemployed and probably homeless.
"There are many veterans groups, and each has its own niche for helping veterans. Ours is to provide jobs to those who are unemployed, and in many cases homeless or at risk of being homeless. The VSO is proud to help get and keep our veterans off the streets, and restore their pride.
"Our entire philosophy is based on empowerment rather than handouts.”
The VSO Work Program is a stepping-stone toward re-entering the workforce, according to VanHouten. The program can prepare participants for permanent employment by providing structure, a work history and a good basic work ethic. Many of the men VSO works with struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol addictions and severe depression. These are conditions that make it difficult to hold down a job, and subsequently difficult to keep a home and strong family ties.
“The work encourages a sense of responsibility, competency and self-respect,” said VanHouten in a phone conversation with Snellville Patch. “Each day they put on a uniform, and it gets them back in the habit of attending to a job and responsibilities. It also allows them to pay their bills and get off the streets. I can’t imagine anyone not supporting the idea of giving homeless veterans a second chance. That’s what VSO is really about.”
In comparison, the American Legion pulled in $59,887,887 in donations, according to its 990s. It gave $1,545,301 in grants, and spent an additional $11,681,567 in magazine production.
The Wounded Warrior Project received $70,145,724 in donations and gave $3,035,031 in direct grants. It spent an additional $9,334,123 on its Alumni Association, its biggest expense, $4,661,271 on a Soldier Ride and $3,766,047 on Combat Stress Recovery.
All are registered as a 501(c)(3).
Manager Jon Gravely is the perfect example of what the VSO does, according to VanHouten. His criminal record is hardly a secret; he discussed it in his first interview with Snellville Patch in August 2012.
“[Gravely] is an example of what happens when you point someone in the right direction,” said VanHouten. “You don’t have to have cancer to raise money for cancer. Jon’s not a veteran, but he goes above and beyond what a chapter manager is required to do.”
Those who work for the VSO but are not veterans are paid from a separate fund than the veterans.
Gravely grew up in a military home, but was not military himself. He served as an independent contractor to the military during the first Gulf War, and when he came back, he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. He started working for the VSO as a civilian, and was promoted to manager.
VanHouten and the VSO wanted to clarify one last issue: when the original WSB-TV story alleges that their actions "triggered a federal investigation," it refers to an IRS audit, which they passed "with flying colors," according to VanHouten.
They have, however, faced investigations in multiple states, including in Connecticut, Florida and Tennessee. Veterans themselves, in various states, have complained about the organization, including local residents, for similar reasons.
"It just makes me sad that they are teaching these guys to panhandle for a living," said Dennis Davidson, a Shriner in Gwinnett County. "It is sad when there are so many truly good organizations that put a whole lot more of their money where they claim it is going. These guys are very aggressive and rude out here [in Cumming] collecting."
No official complaints have been filed in Georgia.
VanHouten is open to answering questions about their organization. Questions can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.