Multco's Veterans' Services reaches out to LGBTQ vets with Pride

June 14, 2015

Multnomah County's Eric Ensley stands before new banners reaching out to LGBTQ vets.

On the second Saturday in June and the Portland Pride Festival is in full swing. The Tom McCall Waterfront Park is overflowing with visitors soaking in the sights and sounds of live music and performers. Booth after booth line the waterfront, staffed by representatives from local organizations—each of them eager to raise awareness on issues facing the LGBTQ community.

Eric Ensley is standing in one of those booths. He’s the supervisor of the Department of County Human Services' Veterans’ Services Office. Dozens of pamphlets pepper the table in front of him. A banner with the office’s logo prominently displays military insignias with a pair of rainbow dog tags. The dog tags are inscribed with the word ‘unity.’

Ensley strikes up a conversation with a visitor.

“Have you served?” Ensley asks. He wants to know if she’s had access to military benefits.  Ensley finds out she’s in need of help, so he sets up an appointment to assist her.

“That’s exactly what we came here to do,” he says.

The Veterans’ Services Office helps thousands of Multnomah County veterans every year. Their objective? Ensure that Multnomah County veterans and their families get connected with the state and federal benefits available to them.

New business cards mark Multnomah County Veterans' Services new outreach to LGBTQ vets.

Ensley is at the festival as part of a concerted effort. He wants to boost outreach to traditionally-underserved veteran communities. The goals are twofold: raise awareness among LGBTQ veterans about the work of Veterans’ Services, and develop a base of clients and referrals. He’s even capable of filing claims on site.

But according to Ensley, who took the supervisor position eight months ago, there’s a host of veterans that have been underserved. He thinks it’s time for a change.

“There’s a stigma about approaching the (Department of Veterans Affairs) for anything by the LGBTQ community,” he says. “We want to try and remove that stigma and allow us to do that work for them.”

Ensley is aware of the obstacles that LGBTQ veterans face. That’s because he’s a veteran, himself. He served in the United States Navy from 1985-93, including a combat tour during Operation Desert Storm. He says that the military has been adversarial towards LGBTQ individuals for a long time. For many decades, being gay or lesbian was grounds for dishonorable discharge.

In the shadow of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

And now, despite the end of the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’’ policy (1993-2011), LGBTQ individuals are still trying to recover lost ground. They often continue to face hurdles, even after service. With LGBTQ couples, accessing spousal benefits can be next to impossible for those living in states not recognizing same-sex marriage.

Heather Niles is a service officer for Veterans’ Services. She’s helped a number of LGBTQ veterans navigate the system. Working with them, she’s learned that alienation sometimes discourages them from seeking help.

“A lot of LGBTQ individuals are veterans, but sometimes they don’t give themselves that distinction because they don’t feel welcome in that community,” Niles says.

Multco's Service officer Heather Niles conducts outreach at PRIDE 2015

Ensley was keenly aware of this inequity when he took over the supervisor position. In Oct. 2014, his first order of business was to implement a 90-day period to assess weak points in his office’s outreach efforts.

“I wanted to know how we were missing certain clients and how we could better engage the community without stopping business,” he says.

By Jan. 1, 2015, Ensley and his staff had developed an outreach plan. They booked their calendars months in advance to be present at community events. They changed their promotional materials to reflect their commitment to equity and inclusion. The office also partnered with local nonprofits and faith-based organizations to further widen their net.

“We’ve been reaching out to more communities,” Niles says. “Communities that maybe we haven’t reached in the past.”

And the Veterans’ Services staff shows no signs of stopping. This summer, their schedules are jampacked with different events. In the coming weeks, they plan to man booths at the VA Portland Homeless Summit, 2015 Juneteenth Oregon and the Good in the Hood Festival

Looking forward, Ensley plans to continue looking for different ways to connect with underserved communities. In addition to the LGBTQ population, the office is also looking to reach out to individuals experiencing homelessness, communities of color, elders, and female veterans.

“We have a unique opportunity to engage the community in a whole bunch of different ways,” Ensley says. “We want to serve all veterans. That’s what all our outreach materials say—‘for all who served.’”