SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - Veterans in jail now have access to more resources under a 2019 program in San Luis Obispo County. The initiative has served 300 people since January.
Michael Meloche is a recent beneficiary. Meloche served in the military 15 years ago.
“I was in Iraqi freedom, we were in the Persian Golf, and we were patrolling the areas out there," he said.
After serving for three years, the SLO veteran says the stress was too much to take in.
“I started using other methods... self medicating, and I ended up getting released from the military for that.”
Those habits eventually landed him in SLO County Jail about a year ago.
“I started using, and once you start using you start selling to try and keep up with the usage," he shared.
Meloche says once in custody, he had trouble navigating the system.
“The system was just bouncing me back and forth and all over the place. I didn't know I had any services available to me because I did get into a little bit of trouble.”
Alison Ordille, a manager for the jail's program unit, says inmates like Meloche often times feel alone.
“Veterans can sometimes be housed in areas of the jail where there may not be other veterans, and I think it's probably easy for them to feel isolated.”
Thanks to a 2019 program designed to connect inmates to veteran services, Meloche says he's been able to turn things around once he was released two months ago.
“They're helping me find housing right now. [They were] able to get me all my benefits back, for my medical, my dental, you know, things I never had for 15 years.”
SLO County Veterans Services representative Sandra Gould says her role has become more hands-on since the initiative was implemented.
“It had to be a dedicated Veterans Services representative who would be able to have the time to go out to the jail, go out and meet with the Sheriff's Department," she said. “I assist them from filing for [Veteran Affairs] benefits, possibly if they needed assistance with residential facilities.”
“We kinda have a more intensified partnership with SLO Veterans Services," said Ordille.
The program also provides veterans free phone calls to connect them directly to Gould's office when they need any type of assistance
“No other county within this state has a free jail line to where veterans can call their Veterans Service office," she said.
“I feel like there's a team backing me and I'm dealing with all my actual issues now," said Meloche.
“They may have just made a mistake and now they need those wraparound services in order to move forward and start over again," said Gould.
The program is funded for 18 months by the Community Corrections Partnership using funding from Assembly Bill 109 (AB 109), a State legislation passed in 2011 that realigned funds to address public safety. Gould says Veterans Services is in the process of securing more funding to continue the program long term.
A 2019 report on the program details other services rendered since it was launched in January:
- Compensation and pension examination: A veteran at County Jail was able to receive Compensation and Pension examination while in custody to request disability benefits. The process is typically done in a doctor's office.
- Making Service Honorable in the Eyes of the VA: Those who receive a “less than honorable” discharge are not eligible for VA benefits. The County Veterans Services Office helps veterans determine if circumstances, such as PTSD, could have been the cause. In those cases, the County has been able to upgrade the status of multiple incarcerated veterans with the VA, allowing them to connect to their benefits.
- Started Working with the California Men’s Colony: Using AB 109 funding, the County Veterans Services Office also started working with vets in the Men’s Colony, a State prison in SLO County. The County has already successfully processed claims for six inmates there.
- Save the State and County Money, while Bringing in Additional Funds: Connecting all veterans, whether they are incarcerated or not, to their benefits helps save the State and County money by moving individuals who may be relying on Medi-Cal or County health care services to VA health care services.
The county jail is also partnering up with CAPSLO to help vets land a job ahead of their release.
“They received a grant to do case management services for veterans in custody," said Ordille. "So we're really excited about that, too."