Policy: Labor

Effort afoot to end homelessness among Connecticut vets

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HARTFORD, Conn. — While advocates say the number of homeless Connecticut veterans has declined somewhat in recent years, there's a new effort underway to try to eliminate homelessness among the state's veteran population over the next two years.

Last week, a wide-ranging coalition of groups ranging from homeless shelters to the Connecticut Department of Labor agreed to a statewide action plan. It was the result of six months of brainstorming and research. By filling in gaps in services and better coordinating existing resources — including a recent boost in federal funding for veteran's housing programs — advocates are optimistic the roughly 400 homeless veterans on a single night in Connecticut can all have housing by the end of 2015.

"If we were to really try to reach and do what is right by veterans, which is that no veteran should be homeless, that's going to require a really strong, achievable plan with strong recommendations," said Greg Behrman of Fairfield, founder of the Connecticut Heroes Project, an initiative focused on combatting homelessness among veterans. He also helped to spearhead this effort to come up with an action plan.

"A plan would allow us to do something extraordinary," Behrman said. "I think that we now have the most detailed, the most actionable state plan in the country."

Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said she's optimistic that homelessness among Connecticut veterans can be eliminated. She said the good news is that there are now adequate federal resources, such as supportive housing for veterans with high needs and homelessness prevention funds. In 2009, the Obama administration announced the goal of ending homelessness among veterans in the U.S. by 2015.

"In Connecticut, we actually do have the resources," she said. "We've just got to actually put them to use."

Besides the federal programs, the state launched various initiatives aimed at helping veterans, such as offering tax credits to companies as incentives for hiring a veteran. There are also various job training programs and grants to defray training costs. But for many veterans, especially those suffering from mental health or addiction issues, it can be a confusing maze to navigate, said Juliet Taylor, a former chaplain assistant and staff sergeant in the U.S. Army who now works as a support employment specialist at the Veterans Administration.

"There is no one place you have to look," said Taylor, who recently helped a man register for VA services 30 years after he left the military.

Taylor found herself on the verge of homelessness in 2009 after she suffered a serious medical problem and was honorably discharged. Taylor, a single mother of three who served nine years in active duty, including an 18-month combat tour in Iraq, had to rely on friends and her mother for help. Next week, Taylor is set to move in to her new home in Bridgeport, part of Habitat for Humanity's "Habitat for Heroes" program. She is Habitat's first "Veterans Build" homeowner in Connecticut.

"If someone doesn't have a home, doesn't have a job, they're not going to be able to function," Taylor said.

The Partnership for Strong Communities last year called for ending chronic homelessness and homeless veterans in Connecticut by 2017. But Nichole Guerra, a policy analyst, said the group didn't have a clear path to reach that goal until approached by Behrman's group. Now, she said, it appears that goal can be reached two years earlier.

"There are a lot of resources available for this population," she said. "It's just a matter of coordinating them more efficiently and doing a better job of outreach and connecting veterans to the services that they need."

Some highlights of the action plan include the creation of a safety net to return a homeless veteran to a stable home within six weeks and a revolving loan fund to provide money for security deposits. The plan also calls for working with the Department of Correction to develop a halfway house for veterans and creation of more permanent housing for veterans by converting unused state property.

The plan also calls for a Veterans Opportunity Fund that agencies can use to hire additional employment specialists to help veterans and the organization of a network of veterans who are employers committed to hiring and supporting homeless and at-risk veterans, helping with their transition to the private sector. It also calls for the production of a one-page brief that veterans can bring to job interviews. It will detail the incentives available for hiring veterans and the liability of hiring National Guard members and reservists.

Aaron Jones, a member of the Army National Guard who served 10 years active duty, works as the veterans outreach coordinator for the South Park Inn, a nonprofit agency in Hartford that provides temporary and long-term housing and supportive services to the homeless, including veterans.

While he welcomes the focus on helping homeless veterans, he questions whether the problem can be fully eliminated, especially considering the mental health and substance abuse problems many of the veterans, both young and old, are facing.

"Is it every going to go away? I don't know," Jones said. "I don't think homelessness will ever be solved. Having a goal is good. But it's one of those things. When we hear that goal, it's something you work toward."

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