“We’ve been at this for 20 years,” Soaries said at the complex. He has achieved long-term goals, like returning a supermarket to the neighborhood, building a new church and seeing New Brunswick open a modern high school just down the road. The housing complex is another step toward serving the community’s seniors, he said.
As Soaries sees it, the new units serve as a bridge between his past efforts and work that still needs to be done. “It’s time for a new plan,” he said, adding that one priority is “I want to do more for veterans.”
But in 2010, the Veterans Administration found that while the nation’s veterans comprise 10 percent of the adult population, 22 million, they are 16 percent of homeless shelter residents. Compared to other homeless people, veterans are far more likely to be male, older and disabled, according to the VA.
Four years ago, federal agencies adopted an ambitious plan to “eliminate” chronic homelessness, including among veterans, by the end of 2015. But it may be hard to tell if and when that mission is accomplished. Even those involved in combating the problem said hard numbers are elusive.
HUD, which makes an, found a year ago that more than 610,000 people, including roughly 58,000 veterans, were homeless on a given January night, including 40 percent on the street “or other places not meant for human habitation.” Still, many numbers are trending in the right direction.
Since HUD and the VA bought into the plan, issuing 10,000 housing vouchers a year, that estimate of homeless veterans has dropped from more than 76,000.
“There really aren’t any hard and fast numbers,” and a one-night count is not going to find everyone, Westhoven said.
Victor Carlson, the VA’s director of homeless services for New Jersey, agrees on the difficulty of pinning down the numbers, but believes the state’s estimate is “a large overstatement.”
Last year’s January count found only 12,002 total homeless people in the state, a 30 percent drop from 2012. HUD estimates the national count found almost two-thirds of the chronically homeless.
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans credits the federal agencies and their partners with making dramatic progress. Since 2005, the VA has been involved in the creation of about 45,000 transitional or long-term housing units for veterans, the group said.
In New Jersey, the VA has gotten directly involved in housing. In November, the first of 62 housing units opened at Valley Brook Village on the VA property in Lyons. Built by a private developer, Peabody Properties of Braintree, Mass., the $15.2 million housing complex is run by the non-profit Community Hope of Parsippany.
One key to the construction was the department’s new “enhanced land use,” allowing the construction on a portion of its campus rather than requiring the developer to buy high-priced Somerset Hills acreage.
That reflects the VA’s commitment to solving the problem, Carlson said, but it is only part of the puzzle here. New Jersey presents a number of obstacles for veterans and others who may find housing, but are trying to keep it on limited incomes, he said.
“What we really need to focus on is employment,” he said, training veterans for good job opportunities, and then facing the challenge of finding them jobs in a difficult economy in a place with a high cost of living.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are making $10 an hour and trying to pay rent,” Carlson said. “One of the biggest challenges is public transportation throughout New Jersey,” so even for those getting housing vouchers are often limited to urban areas, he said.
The NJDMVA is providing its piece through two transitional housing “havens” for veterans who have completed drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs, in Winslow and Glen Gardner. In 2011, an addition doubled the size of the Winslow facility, to 110 beds, and “we’re always pretty close to capacity,” Westhoven said.
Residents can stay for up to two years, and have had success finding work in the area despite the transportation issues, he said. Local businesses and nonprofits have been supportive, he said.