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

Thousands who served their country find themselves on the streets, jobless and struggling to survive

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.

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