Q & A with Erik Wallin

Erik Wallin – Submitted photo

You are the Executive Director and General Counsel for Operation Stand Down Rhode Island, OSDRI, the state’s leading non-profit organization serving homeless and at-risk veterans. A critical mission, needless to say. First, can you please give us a brief history of OSDRI, which was founded by President and Board chairman Anthony DeQuattro, who served in the Marines. 

In 1992, Tony DeQuattro and several other Vietnam-era veterans began OSDRI in response to the inaction by federal and state officials to help homeless veterans in our state.  The genesis of OSDRI was centered around sponsoring an annual 3-day “Stand Down Weekend” at which a military-style encampment was constructed to allow homeless and at-risk veterans to access in a one-stop location help with housing, jobs, benefits,  healthcare, and other basic human needs.  In 2001, OSDRI opened Rhode Island’s first permanent supportive housing facility in Johnston, Rhode Island, and began to develop into a year-round veteran services organization.  Thirty years later the organization has remained true to the original concept of providing a one-stop location for veterans to access life-changing and sometimes life-saving services.  Headquartered in Johnston and with offices in Newport and West Warwick, OSDRI has a state-wide and full-time presence focused on its mission to strengthen the veteran community by providing housing and crucial wrap-around services.

OK, now the present. We will get into detail momentarily but how about an overview of the services OSDRI provides. 

OSDRI owns and operates 88 permanent and transitional housing units across the State of Rhode Island and offers a wide array of supportive services for in-need veterans.  These services include temporary financial assistance with rent and utilities, employment and training resources, pro-bono legal assistance, and representation in VA disability claims applications and appeals. OSDRI also operates Rhode Island’s largest veteran-dedicated food pantry.  Our staff of case managers, attorneys, and mental health counselors annually serve approximately 2500 veterans.  The staff is unique because all the case managers, mental health counselors, and most legal staff are veterans who combined have 271 years of military service.  The remainder of OSDRI’s employees are spouses or siblings of veterans. In essence, OSDRI upholds a time-honored tradition of veterans helping veterans which I believe sets us apart from many other non-profits doing our type of work.  This unique perspective allows us to better understand where a veteran is coming from when they seek our assistance.  While every individual veteran’s experience is different, there are many commonalities, and it is important to be able to relate to the people you are trying to help especially when they are in crisis.

Tell us more about the Employment and Training Program. 

OSDRI’s employment and training program works to match veterans with a wide range of skills with employers offering full-time growth-oriented opportunities.  This process is multi-layered.  Employment and training case managers develop an individualized plan assessing the veteran’s skills, interests, and goals while also identifying barriers to employment.  The case manager will work with the veteran to identify resources often available directly from OSDRI to overcome barriers.  An example of this multi-discipline approach would be utilizing OSDRI legal assistance staff to help restore driving privileges or resolve a tax hold on a trade or professional license renewal.  Staff also assist in resume writing and accessing education benefits offered through vocational rehabilitation programs.  OSDRI works closely with partners at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training to ensure all resources are available to veterans in our employment program.  Employment is a vital part of housing stability and restoring a sense of pride and self-worth in the individual.  Veterans can be proudest of their time in uniform, but it need not be the last job they are proud of.  Veterans bring valuable skills, both tangible and intangible, to the employment market and are a vital economic resource to this state.        

And Housing. We read this on your site: “Located on eight campuses across Rhode Island, OSDRI has developed, owns and operates 88 units.  Each housing program offers various levels of supportive services. Housing is available for females, males and families.”  

OSDRI has multiple housing campuses located in Woonsocket, Providence, Johnston, West Warwick, and Westerly.  Low-income disabled veterans and veteran families generally occupy permanent housing.  The residents in our permanent housing live independently but have access to our supportive services including food and personal hygiene pantry.  Our transitional housing programs are more service-intensive. On average both male and female veterans can remain in our transitional housing program for up to two years.  During that time, our clinical social workers, case managers, and other supportive staff work with them to overcome barriers to permanent, stable housing.  This includes help with gaining employment, accessing benefits earned, financial counseling, locating housing, and coordinating medical and mental healthcare services. 

In addition to housing owned and operated by OSDRI, each year, the organization provides temporary financial assistance through security deposits, rent in arrears, and short-term rental subsidies for over 300 unique veteran households. This assistance is paid to third-party private landlords.  In the last 12 years of this program, OSDRI has either housed or prevented over 3600 veteran households from becoming homeless.   

Basic Human Needs? 

Located at our Headquarters and Veteran Service Center at 1010 Hartford Avenue, in Johnston is a food pantry available to in-need veterans.  The pantry relies on donations from the community and has historically been supported by churches, police departments, municipal employees, corporations, and individuals.   Veterans can obtain non-perishable items and health and hygiene products.  Donations can be made at our Johnston location Monday – Friday from 9:00 am until 4:00 pm.  We also accept food gift cards provided to veterans for perishable items.   

You offer legal services, too.

Legal services are one of the most unmet needs identified nationally and locally for veterans. This was evident in 2011 when OSDRI joined Rhode Island District Court Chief Judge Jeanne LaFazia and later the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal to bring the courts to OSDRI’s annual Veteran Assistance event.  Over the years OSDRI worked to develop a permanent legal assistance program and did so in 2018 with the formation of its Legal Assistance for Warriors (LAW) program.   OSDRI’s LAW program preceded what is now a mandated service under its major federal housing grant.  OSDRI provides eligible low-income veterans pro-bono legal services in cases involving misdemeanors (including expungements, warrants, and fines), landlord-tenant evictions, traffic tribunal cases involving license suspensions, and other select matters.  Separately, OSDRI also has a VA Disability Claims Unit where VA accredited claims advocates assist veterans in the application for and appeal of decisions involving claims for benefits relating to service-connected disabilities.    

OSDRI services are available for female and male veterans, active-duty military members, reservists, National Guard members and families, correct? 

Yes. Some federally funded grant-related services have eligibility requirements.

How many individuals are served annually? 

2,500

OSDRI sponsors an annual Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial. What is it and when and where will it be this year? 

Boots on the Ground for Heroes Memorial is a patriotic display of over 7000 military boots, each representing a fallen U.S. Service Member Post 9/11 in the Global War on Terror.  Each boot is adorned with a flag and a placard that has a photo of the fallen and biographical information, including the home of record, branch, unit of service, place, date, and circumstances of death.  They are arranged in alphabetical order and by state. After having been displayed on the field at Gillette Stadium this past Veterans Day Weekend, it will return Memorial Day Weekend to Fort Adams in Newport from May 24 through May 27th.   

What is the philosophy behind OSDRI’s motto, “A Hand up. Not a Hand Out.” 

The belief in second chances and self-reliance drives our philosophy.  We are committed to offering the tools and resources to meet our sisters and brothers wherever they are, but you must want and be willing to help yourself. The resources are too scarce and precious to waste and the need is far greater than the abundance.         

And lastly, tell us about yourself – the road you traveled to OSDRI.  

In 1997, while in my final year of law school, I applied for a direct commission and was sworn into the United States Air Force.  I left the Air Force in 2003 as a Captain having served in the Department of the Judge Advocate General, defending and prosecuting courts-martial at bases around the U.S.   I returned to Rhode Island and worked as a prosecutor for the Rhode Island Department of Attorney General and then briefly in private practice.  During a campaign for Rhode Island Attorney General, I met Tony DeQuattro the founder of Operation Stand Down Rhode Island.  After losing the campaign, I returned to private practice, but Tony soon sought me out first for a position on the Board of OSDRI and then to serve as the Executive Director. OSDRI was at a crossroads at the time, and Tony, as he still preaches today, said, “If you are going to be successful, it has to come from the heart.”  Since that time, OSDRI has grown tremendously in both the types of services offered and the number of veterans we help.  At the core of its success has been a passionate and dedicated staff, strong support from the Rhode Island community, and, by all those involved, a heart-felt commitment to serve our in-need veterans.