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Many Join Forces in Effort to Help Veterans Find Homes in New Jersey

This $15 million affordable housing complex in the Somerset section of Franklin Township, spearheaded by the Rev. Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries, includes subsidized apartments for military veterans.

After he got out of the Army almost three decades ago, Mark Montgomery’s service experience in transport landed him in the driver’s seat.

As a truck driver, “I traveled a lot around the U.S., all over,” he recalled. “There are some beautiful places. I really liked California… in the winter time.”

Not all the sights Montgomery saw were reassuring, such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- truckers had to improvise because their past routes just weren’t there anymore, he said.

“They’re still rebuilding,” Montgomery said, and he has seen other places that are still struggling as well in the wake of what has been called the Great Recession.

After a while, Montgomery began to feel that he, too, was struggling.

Cross-country driving “takes a toll on your body,” he said, and at 51, he wasn’t physically up to it anymore. But the subsequent drop in income turned the once independent man into one reliant on help.

“I was just staying with family members,” said Montgomery, one of many veterans, some with long employment records, struggling on the margins of the current economy.

While mothers and children account for most of those in shelters across the country, another significant homeless population is veterans, many of them with disabilities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In New Jersey, the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs estimates there are 6,000 to 9,000 homeless veterans at any given time, according to spokesman Kryn Westhoven.

There is no single program to address the needs of homeless veterans, but HUD and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have joined in an ambitious program to combine housing vouchers with other support services and counseling for veterans. In New Jersey, the VA has gone further, providing land to help a developer build affordable units for veterans.

They have found allies in state, county and local governments, nonprofit agencies and even businesses, working together in a variety of neighborhood housing efforts.

Montgomery’s life took a turn for the better when he heard about new housing being developed by Genesis Companies and the development arm of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Franklin Township.

He grew up in the area and was familiar with the church even before the Rev. DeForest “Buster” Soaries became pastor.

Soaries, the one-time New Jersey Secretary of State, not only expanded the church, he shepherded a 20-year community development vision for the Somerset section off Route 27 along the New Brunswick border.

$15 Million Apartment Complex Opens

The $15 million apartment complex opened last month on the former site of a bank headquarters. Those behind the project say it addresses the need, both in New Jersey and in the nation, for affordable housing in general, and particularly for senior citizens and veterans.

“There’s always a shortage of affordable housing in the state of New Jersey, and particularly of affordable rental units,” said Anthony Marchetta, executive director of the state Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency, another partner in financing the building.

The recession increased the demand for housing several ways, Marchetta said. From 2008 to 2013, roughly 4.6 million homeowners lost their properties to foreclosure, according to CoreLogic of Irvine, Calif., which analyzes the real-estate market. Money is tight, and so are jobs, forcing more people into renting, according to Marchetta.

Operating in concert with VA centers, HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program provides housing vouchers in areas where the agencies have identified significant numbers of needy veterans.

Montgomery, who already was documented in the VA system, was approved for a housing voucher.

“I knew exactly where I wanted to go with it,” he said – to the new Soaries housing development in Franklin, he said.

“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 annual report to Congress, 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.

Other problems include jobs, transportation

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.

For all those involved in housing issues, finding partners has been a key. That has been true even when an initiative starts in the private sector. Four years ago, Union City attorney John Lynch and his partner, Ralph Affuso, planned to build 18 apartments in a building they owned on Kennedy Boulevard.

Although they already had approvals, as they talked it over with others in the community, they came up with the idea of reserving units for veterans who could meet income restrictions, Lynch said.

“My father served in World War II, and this is a way of paying respect to the people who served our country,” he said.

But the project might not have happened without impressive support and cooperation by local, county, state and federal government, Lynch said.

The partners also got help from a nonprofit, “Homes for Heroes,” that coordinates such efforts, Lynch said. They soon had “four or five government agencies involved,” including funding from HUD through Hudson County and the New Jersey Special Needs Housing Trust Fund, as well as continuing care funds and screening from the county division of housing and community development, Lynch said.

The North Hudson Community Action Corporation agreed to provide a range of training and support services for the residents, while a raft of businesses made contributions including furnishings.

To qualify for an apartment, a veteran must have an honorable discharge, must make less than 50 percent of the median income and must have a mental or physical disability. The vet must pay 30 percent of his disposable income as rent.

Back in Franklin Township, developer Karim Hutson of the Genesis Companies extolled the similar spirit of cooperation behind the Soaries apartments. No one wanted to cut corners, he said.

The state and private backers encouraged him to install high-efficiency heating and cooling, large bathrooms, stylish counters and design details like small shelves next to doorways, “so a woman can put down her bag while she gets out her keys,” Hutson said.

The new place is a welcome change for Gregory Shaffer, an Elizabeth native who served as crew chief for C-47 military transport planes in Vietnam. A former HVAC contractor whose health and finances could not keep up, he found himself homeless and couch surfing when he heard of the new apartments.

“It’s a new building, reasonable rent, the people are nice,” Schaffer said. “For the money, it’s pretty great.”

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