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Opinion: Grassroots Help for New Jersey's Homeless Veterans

Five Rutgers grads build a veterans assistance program in memory of a fallen friend.

"One out of four homeless Americans have one thing in common: They once proudly wore our country’s uniform. Today, almost 200,00 homeless veterans live on the streets, not knowing the next time they will eat, take a hot shower or sleep indoors on a bed."

That quote appears in the mission statement of the G.I. Go Fund, established five years ago by five South Brunswick high school buddies and Rutgers grads after one of their friends, 2nd Lt. Seth Dvorin, was killed during his second tour of duty in Iraq.

Dvorin was among the thousands of Americans who enlisted shortly after 911, later to be shunted off to a war that had nothing to do with 911 or preventing another Al Quaeda attack.

How many New Jersey vets are homeless? According to Nick Manis, director of Housing and Homeless Prevention at G.I. Go, "the best estimate is that between 4,000 and 6,000" Garden State vets are living on the streets or in emergency shelters at any time.

How can this be happening? There’s an alphabet soup of government agencies at the national and state level committed to helping returning vets -- starting with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (a cabinet-level office).

Why then do so many veterans end up in the streets?

According to Manis, "a lot of it has to do with the very high rate of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. These vets find it especially hard to cope with the complex application forms and bureaucratic rules they have to deal with." Even returning GIs without PTSD face daunting obstacles: Loss of jobs, business collapses, dissolving marriages and other physical and emotional injuries -- all part of the mounting toll of victims of a war that should never have been fought.

Perhaps worst of all, thousands of returning vets come back to find their homes in foreclosure or already lost, more collateral damage courtesy of Wall Street, whose devious actions have thus far gone both unpunished and unmitigated.

According to a report by Realty Trac, a foreclosure research firm, last year more than "20,000 veterans, active duty troops and reservists... lost their homes, the highest number since 2003."

So what’s to be done, given Governor Christie’s "new normal” of continuous budget cuts?

Jack Fanous, executive director of G.I. Go, says money has less to do with it than "accessing programs already in place."

"The VA has a book of benefits programs that's 80,000 pages long," explains Fanous. How many vets can cope with that? Most are young guys who just want to get to with their lives.”

Fanous adds that the Army "has a 2 day debriefing session" that doesn't work. "You need a college degree almost” to make sense of the application forms, data requirements and due dates.

That’s where G.I. Go comes in. Fanous and Manis, and a team of volunteers, including many former GI’s, are on-call to help vets navigate through a maze of programs, each with its own eligibility rules and regulations. To pay for their good works, they rely on grants and donors, including corporations like PSE&G, which has provided not only funding but also jobs for some of G.I. Go’s clients.

Fanous and Manis have high praise for Newark Mayor Cory Booker. They ran into him last October at the annual Stand Down open house in Newark, where "homeless vets can get hot meals, hot showers, haircuts, winter clothes, that sort of thing,” Fanous said.

Booker was so impressed with the work of G.I. Go that he urged them to open an office for returning vets inside Newark City Hall. Fanous says it is "the first of its kind in the country."

Fanous also praises for Governor Christie even though he froze the $1.3 million budget for State veterans programs as part of Executive Order 14, declaring a fiscal emergency last February. "But then he unfroze the budget, and he’s shown real understanding ever since."

Among state programs, Fanous and Manis say, the Yellow Ribbon Fund is the most helpful. It provides up to $5,000 for each vet to pay for emergency needs, "whether it's to stop a foreclosure, make a back rent payment or buy groceries and diapers," says Fanous.

Still, that amount of money seems like a drop in a big bucket with a gaping hole in the bottom. Don Chapman, who administers a VA program to help vets avoid foreclosure, says: "I hear so many sad stories every day of people calling me and telling me why they should be eligible [for VA assistance]" but losing out, sometimes because they missed filing deadlines.

Of course, the problem of military personnel losing their homes is part of a national foreclosure crisis. Some 65,000 people are likely to lose their homes this year in New Jersey alone, sometimes based on nothing more substantial than a phony robo-signed claim.

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