Russell Robinson was fed up by the sight of veterans eking out a life under the Boardwalk and out on the streets, so he decided to take action last November.
The Vietnam veteran and Atlantic County American Legion commander rallied several local organizations to start putting vets up in local motels. Robinson was eventually able to shelter three until the money ran out three months later.
“It was just too much,” said Robinson, 68, of Pleasantville. “I couldn’t get the money no longer — the veterans had given enough.”
Housing for veterans is a problem too large for any one person or organization to tackle alone, he concluded.
Robinson and other advocates say the Veterans Point project had offered hope. They say housing and other assistance is still desperately needed in South Jersey.
Robert McNulty, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Mays Landing chapter, said it’s a shame that units that could house veterans are sitting vacant because funding isn’t available for them.
“The problem’s still there and Weinstein’s buildings are still empty,” he said. “That’s unfortunate.”
A lack of affordable, stable housing for veterans is a persistent problem despite the efforts of nonprofit organizations such as Community Quest and government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA announced in November it was seeking to build 4,000 units on unused VA properties nationwide through leases to third-parties — only one is in New Jersey, near a health campus in Lyons, Somerset County.
An estimated 76,000 veterans were homeless nationwide in January 2010, the most recent statistics available. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA, 43 percent of them went unsheltered.
A 2011 report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee found that 1.4 million veterans are living below the poverty line, the majority of them from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a percentage of all veterans, that figure increased from 5 percent to 7 percent between 2007 and 2010.
The VA offers several housing programs, including homeless vouchers and mortgage assistance, but resources are limited. HUD provides 20,000 “Housing Choice” Section 8 vouchers to veterans through the HUD-VASH program.
At any one time there are 60 vouchers for all of Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, said Jaime Kazmarck, the HUD-VASH coordinator for the Northfield VA clinic. In March, the VA announced an additional 10 vouchers for disbursement in Atlantic City, worth about $88,000, as part of $75 million appropriated for 2012 nationwide.
Kazmarck said her office tries to do the most good with the available resources, but concedes there are more homeless veterans than available vouchers.
“Ultimately, the goal is to provide case-management services, and to identify goals and a treatment plan so they can eventually become self-sustaining,” she said.
The program targets chronically homeless veterans, Kazmarck said.
“If we have a newly returning soldier ... finding themselves on the street, we try to prioritize them,” she said. “But for the most part the program’s targeted to those on the street for a very long time.”
McNulty, a 61-year-old Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, said the problem with the vouchers — aside from the shortage of them — is that they block veterans with criminal records from federal housing.
“You could’ve been smoking pot when you got out of the service 40 years ago,” he said. “If you have a record that excludes you from public housing, that’s going to limit you.”
Vets also tend to have other special needs — including treatment for the physical and emotional scars of war — that make obtaining housing, public or otherwise, difficult.
“The minute you say ‘mental health,’ everybody goes, ‘Oh God, not here,’” he said. “A dark cloud hangs over that component.”
And the issue doesn’t begin and end with homelessness.
McNulty said vets who are living with friends and family members or in substandard housing aren’t tallied in the homeless statistics, but they, too, are in unstable situations.
If a veteran is forced to stay somewhere they don’t want to be, they are still homeless, he said.
“Say you’re stuck in your sister’s cellar, you should be counted,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re as bad off as some person on the street, but you’re not the captain of your own ship.”
The tenants at Veterans Point came from different backgrounds, but they all share similar stories of leaving one desperate situation for another.
They arrived at “The Point” after being forced to leave or sell a home due to the economy, fleeing a dangerous Philadelphia neighborhood, getting out of prior leases because of rat infestations or living with relatives who were themselves on shaky financial ground.
One organization supporting veterans on the brink is Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Camden. Since November, the organization has been providing case management and financial support through a $750,000 VA grant — in addition to private donations — through its “Ready, Vet, Go” program.
“Our program is specifically targeted to preventing low-income veterans and families from becoming homeless,” said Executive Director Kevin Hickey said.
It’s better to help those families stay in their homes than wait until they’re on the streets and need far more resources, Hickey said.
“Once a family or individual becomes homeless, there’s a certain inexorable march,” he said. “An accumulation of tough things are happening ... that make it increasingly difficult to pull them back out.”
Mike Sciullo, chairman of the Atlantic County Veterans Advisory Board, said the roots of the housing problem — a whole host of problems including mental health and unemployment — are difficult to address, said Sciullo, an 86-year-old WWII veteran.
“I honestly don’t have any idea at all” how to solve it, he said. “They’ve been talking about vets housing and the government has appropriated huge sums of money for it, yet we don’t see anything at all happening in our area.”
McNulty said there needs to be a holistic approach involving many different organizations and types of care because so many veterans have a host of other issues at play.
“It’s not all healthy guys dying to work, sitting around waiting,” he said. “You have vets with families, vets who are single moms — it’s not just G.I. Joe standing by ready to go.”
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