New Veterans Legal Clinic initiative aims to connect low-income veterans with underutilized Massachusetts benefits

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School (LSC) announced the launch of a new statewide initiative aimed at helping close the significant gap between low-income veterans in Massachusetts and the financial assistance they are eligible for under state law.

The Massachusetts Veteran Benefit Calculator, an online tool created by the Veterans Legal Clinic aims to help veterans easily determine if they may be eligible for financial assistance through a state program known as Chapter 115 Benefits. Massachusetts is home to approximately 325,000 of the nation’s veterans, too many of whom experience financial instability and struggle with poverty.

Mass Vet Benefit Calculator outreach materials

Credit: Photo courtesy of Francisco Ureña Outreach and informational materials about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator, including a self-help guide to Chapter 115 Benefits for veterans and their families, many of whom are unaware that they may be eligible.

The announcement was made Nov. 5 by the Veterans Legal Clinic in collaboration with Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Ureña, as well as Veterans service officers and other veterans organizations.

Low-income veterans can be eligible for state financial assistance under Chapter 115 if they fall under 200 percent of the federal poverty level and meet other eligibility requirements. However, there has been a persistent gap between the number of veterans eligible for these funds and the number of veterans who actually apply for and access them. A 2017 report by the State Auditor’s Office found that, between 2014 and 2016, only 14,390 individuals received Chapter 115 benefits, but thousands more may be eligible. The Chapter 115 program also supports survivors and dependents of veterans, but many are unaware of the program.

Veterans have earned these benefits through their service … No veteran or survivor in Massachusetts should be struggling to avoid homelessness, to keep the lights on, or to feed their family, and this financial assistance can make all the difference.

Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School

“Veterans have earned these benefits through their service, yet we know that there is a major gap between those veterans who are eligible and those who access them. And a similar gap exists for widows and widowers of veterans. We hope this online Vet tool can make it a little easier to close these gaps,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. “No veteran or survivor in Massachusetts should be struggling to avoid homelessness, to keep the lights on, or to feed their family, and this financial assistance can make all the difference. We are honored to share in this mission with the Department of Veterans Services and local VSOs across the Commonwealth.”

Secretary Urena speaking at the Massachusetts State House

Credit: Photo courtesy of Francisco Ureña Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Services Francisco Ureña speaks about the Massachusetts Veterans Benefit Calculator at the State House on November 5, 2019.

“The Department of Veterans’ Services works to ensure that Massachusetts veterans are supported after a career of service to our nation,” said Francisco Ureña, Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. “This new online tool will help veterans and their families explore state benefits available to them with ease.”

“The process of applying and navigating benefits can be complex and daunting, on top of the other daily issues veterans are dealing with,” said Wesley Bigham, a Massachusetts Veteran who served in Afghanistan. “I wasn’t aware of Chapter 115 benefits when I came back from active duty and was unemployed, but it would have made a huge difference for my family. If I’d known about this financial assistance and had access to a tool like the Benefits Calculator, it would have been one of the first things I did when returning home.”

Under Chapter 115 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Commonwealth, along with town and city governments, provides financial assistance for qualifying low-income veterans and their surviving family members who are struggling to make ends meet. The monthly financial assistance can be used to help veterans pay their medical bills, for emergency assistance, or to help prevent homelessness and utility shutoff. Monthly Chapter 115 benefits can range from a few dollars to over $1,000 per month, depending on the veteran’s income and expenses. The benefits are administered by the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) and local municipalities’ Veterans’ Service Offices (VSO).

Veterans and their dependents can visit the online calculator, answer simple questions, and receive an immediate estimate of their potential eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits. If they are eligible, users can download a form with their answers to the tool’s screening questions and connect with their local VSO. In partnership with the state, the VSO will assist the veteran or dependent with their official application for Chapter 115 benefits and manage the process of accessing benefits should the applicant meet eligibility requirements.

The Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School provides pro bono civil legal assistance to veterans and their family members, with the aim of protecting the legal rights of the veterans community through effective advocacy. In addition to representing individual clients, the Clinic also pursues broader initiatives to improve the systems that serve the veteran community. As part of the Legal Services Center, the Clinic is also able to leverage a wide range of expertise and advocacy resources for the community’s most vulnerable members.

For more information on the Veteran Benefit Calculator, visit MassVetBen.org.