Federal and state agencies closed on Wednesday and citizens paused to honor those who served in the military, but about 700 New Jersey veterans could have used a more substantial thank you — a permanent home.
According to the NJ Counts 2015 report on the state’s homeless by Monarch Housing Associates, there were 695 veterans last winter living in shelters, transitional housing, or out on the street.
Including members of their families, veteran homelessness affected 738 people. About 12 percent, or 80 veteran households, were unsheltered, with the rest living in transitional housing or emergency shelters. While shelters and transitional housing are better than living on the street, the goal for advocates is to get all veterans into permanent housing.
Monarch’s point-in-time count is a snapshot of the number homeless on one night in January or February and may understate the scope of the problem. On its website, the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs estimates the state’s population of homeless former military men and women at between 2,500 and 3,000.
The White House, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness have made ending homelessness among veterans a priority, with the USIACH seeking to get all veterans into homes by the end of this year.
But NJ Counts 2015 found that homelessness among veterans is rising, not falling. The 695 homeless veterans and their family members numbered about 12 percent more than in 2014, while the total number of homeless people in the state dropped by 14 percent in the same period.
Still, there is reason for hope, according to Kate Kelly of Monarch. In a blog post on Wednesday, Kelly wrote that the VA in New Jersey housed 1,282 homeless veterans in fiscal year 2015, twice as many as two years ago, and 87 percent of those housed remain stably housed after a year.
“The VA has shifted the way that it serves homeless veterans with a focus on street outreach, prevention, and housing homeless veterans through the Housing First model, and providing permanent housing,” according to Kelly. “It is reaching homeless veterans that traditionally were not accessing VA services.”
Since 2009, New Jersey has received 935 HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers, and the state Department of Community Affairs has provided 200 Housing Choice Vouchers for homeless vets, Kelly wrote. And the VA’s Lyons campus is set to an additional 50 vouchers in 2016.
Veterans Affairs’ Lyons hospital is located in Somerset County, where the largest number of veterans — 162 — were counted last winter. Camden had the second-largest number, with 135, and that county is the home of the Veterans Transitional Housing Program, known as Veterans Haven in Winslow.
And about three dozen New Jersey municipal and county officials have accepted First Lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness in 2015.
On Tuesday, Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, and several nonprofits, including Soldier On and the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, discussed their efforts to meet Obama’s challenge.
Jackson said he is committing resources and personnel from Trenton’s Coordinated Entry and Assessment Services Center, a comprehensive one-stop initiative for homeless adults launched last April, to work with nonprofit and veteran-service organizations on the “Plan to End Veteran Homelessness in 2015.
To date, the partnership has identified 79 homeless veterans in Mercer County. Through various efforts and resources, 61 already have been housed, with a goal of finding homes for the remaining 18 veterans by the end of the year. Mercer County has received national recognition for its Family Rapid Re-housing program, which follows the Housing First approach that quickly provides homeless people with stable housing and then furnishes other services.
“We have shown that we can rapidly house families once we have a focused effort,” said Hughes. “We can and will do the same for veterans. We will house every homeless veteran before the end of 2015.”