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Homeless Connecticut vets, once ignored, get needed support

On any given night, more than 300 Connecticut veterans go without a home.

Men and women, many of whom fought in foreign combat theaters, find shelter under highway overpasses, in back alleys and at homeless shelters across the state.

“There’s no reason there should be homeless veterans,” said Joseph Oliveras, a 53-year-old Army veteran who spent 20 years living on the street. “How about taking care of the people who fought for this country and served this country?”

Once largely ignored by policymakers, homelessness among veterans has become a top priority of federal, state and local service organizations.

In 2009, President Barack Obama and Veteran Affairs Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

Those on the ground say ending chronic homelessness — where veterans find themselves living on the streets or in shelters for years — is attainable.

“Ending homelessness means creating a system where if they end up homeless, the experience is brief, rare and nonrecurring,” said Nichole Guerra, policy analyst at Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford-based think tank.

Among key components of the plan to eradicate veteran homelessness is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs distribution of housing vouchers for veterans. Called Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or HUD-VASH, vouchers, the money helps place veterans in housing so the VA then can wrap around other support services, such as mental health assistance, substance abuse treatment and job training.

Since 2008, HUD has distributed more than 48,000 of the vouchers, with another 10,000 in the pipeline. This year alone, more than $1.4 billion will be spent housing the homeless, and the VA will spend another $4.4 billion on health care for homeless veterans.

The program is expensive, but those on the ground contend that ending homelessness for any group involves an obvious first step.

“Part of ending homelessness for vets will mean putting folks on a path to independence, and that means getting people housed more quickly,” said Greg Behrman, founder of the Connecticut Heroes Project.

Meanwhile, Connecticut is offering tax credits to companies that hire veterans.

Efforts at both the national and state levels seem to be paying returns.

Nationwide, the number of homeless veterans is down 17 percent, according to the VA. In Connecticut, it’s down from 461 in 2010 to 340 this year, according to Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

On Friday, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both D-Conn., along with U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, announced that a VA grant for $137,410 was secured for the Applied Behavioral Rehabilitation Institute in Bridgeport, which provides housing, mental health care assistance, substance abuse counseling and vocational training for veterans. The grant will pay for renovations on the facility and a new van to transport vets.

Two Connecticut nonprofits, the Partnership for Strong Communities and the Connecticut Heroes Project, have launched a job-training and placement program to assist veterans.

Despite the efforts of the VA, HUD and hundreds of nonprofits across the country and in Connecticut, ending homelessness among veterans remains a tall task. Currently more than 62,000 former service men and women are without a home; an additional 1.4 million veterans are at-risk of ending up on the street, according to the VA.

Returning home and bottoming out

In winter 1993, Oliveras, of Ansonia, spent his first night sleeping on the street.

“I was at Seaside Park in Bridgeport and it was snowing,” Oliveras said.

He had just lost his job at a moving company, ran out of money and his landlord evicted him.

“I couldn’t believe his was happening to me,” he said.

Oliveras spent six months on the street that first winter, before landing in a shelter. But by the next year he was back on the street. Oliveras would continue the cycle of splitting time between sleeping in shelters, on friends’ couches and on the street for 20 years. Along the way he began to abuse drugs and alcohol; he was arrested several times for petty theft. For Oliveras, the streets were a trap.

“I couldn’t get a job because people would look at my past and see that I got arrested. I had to steal to survive,” he said.

Oliveras served in the military from 1979 to 1981, but until recently never took advantage of the benefits afforded to veterans.

“I had the G.I. Bill, but didn’t use it because no one told me about it,” he said.

Mary Porter, founder of No Vet Left Behind, said Oliveras’ story is not uncommon. Her program helps veterans with food, clothing and access to services. Oliveras often travels to No Vet Left Behind’s facility in Ansonia for food and clothing.

Porter says veterans often are unprepared for life after the military. Many don’t know where to access their benefits or even what benefits they are entitled to receive.

“The military makes us combat ready,” said Porter, herself a veteran, “but they don’t make us civilian ready.”

The transition from military to civilian life means undoing much of the training received in the armed forces.

“Veterans undergo very stressful training whether they deploy or not,” said John Driscoll, president of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. “Members of the military live in a very stressful environment, and when they are deployed they operate in a hypervigilant environment where they are constantly on guard. When they return to the civilian world, it takes a tremendous adjustment.”

Nearly half of newly homeless veterans have been diagnosed with some mental disorders prior to their discharge from active duty, according to the NCHV. As many as one in five combat veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and one in four abuse alcohol in the first four months after returning from a deployment in the Middle East, according to the VA.

“A lot of the issues that can cause homelessness can be exacerbated by military issues. If you have mental health issues and have served in the military, you might be more likely to self-medicate,” said Gabriel Zucker, associate director of the Connecticut Heroes Project. “There are accumulated mental health issues that make it difficult to hold a job. And if we don’t treat mental health, it can lead to someone living on the street.”

Beyond the mental health and substance abuse issues faced by many veterans, the newest crop of soldiers and sailors returning home face a struggling economy and lackluster job market.

“The young men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are coming home to a country plagued by the economic downturn,” Driscoll said. “That has made reintegration into the society difficult for young troops, especially for those who had limited job experience before they went into the service.”

Job training is available through the VA, but critics argue that the current employment training and placement systems are incongruous.

“There are resources to train and there are resources to hire vets, but few resources to connect veterans with jobs,” Behrman said.

And even if a veteran finds a job-training program, returning to civilian life often means learning new skills.

“Military occupations don’t always translate to the civilian business world. A lot of the values you learn in the military are valued by employers, but the jobs you have in the military don’t translate to the civilian world,” Driscoll said. “There isn’t a high demand for a door gunner.”

After 20 years on the street, Oliveras recently moved into an apartment in Seymour.

“I had enough of it. I got sick of it. I was sick of going house to house, shelter to shelter and living on the street,” he said.

Oliveras just finished taking classes at New England Tractor Trailer School. The Veterans’ Retraining Assistance Program has helped pay for his apartment while in school. Oliveras takes his driving test for his commercial driver’s license Saturday.

Help arrives

In 1990, at a conference of homeless service providers in Jacksonville, Fla., the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans was born. The idea was conceived by homeless advocates who saw a dearth of services for veterans.

“At the time, there were no assistance available for homeless veterans and low-income veterans,” Driscoll said.

At the time when NCHV was formed, the efforts around ending homelessness had been around for three decades, but there were no coordinated efforts to address veterans living on the streets and in shelters.

“We have had homeless-assistance programs since the Great Society in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until recently that we got a sense of the problems facing homeless veterans,” Driscoll said.

In 1999, the first study on homeless veterans was completed. At the time, veterans comprised more than a quarter of the homeless population, and one in three homeless men were veterans.

According to current tallies on the homeless population, 13 percent of the transient population are veterans, and one in five homeless men are veterans.

“It shows you how much progress has been made in the last 14 years,” Driscoll said.

The bulk of progress in addressing homelessness among veterans has been made in the last five years.

“Prior to the Obama administration, no one was talking about getting veterans into housing,” Driscoll said. “The Obama administration recognized the sooner we get veterans into housing, the quicker we can get them into supportive services.”

Since the VA and the Obama administration set 2015 as a goal for ending veteran homelessness, there has been a groundswell of grass-roots activity on the issue.

Connecticut’s Heroes Project formed this past spring. The nonprofit’s founder, Behrman, is a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He returned to the U.S. in 2012 hoping to make a difference.

“I believe there is a sacred obligation that the people who fight for this country should have a place to rest their head at night,” Behrman said.

The Connecticut Heroes Project focus is connecting veterans with the resources available through the VA and HUD.

“The theme of all of our work is that we not working from scratch; the resources are out there,” Zucker said.

The Partnership for Strong Communities is partnering with the Connecticut Heroes Project. The two agencies hope to establish a Veterans Opportunity Fund, which will help pay for employment specialists to help veterans land jobs.

“It’s one thing to get a person back in housing, but it’s worthless if the person can’t find a job,” Zucker said.

Like the Connecticut Heroes Project, Jesse’s Homeless Outreach Project was formed in 2012. While it’s broadly focused on addressing general homelessness, JHOP Overseer Marcey Jones says 70 percent of the nonprofit’s clients are veterans.

Jones’ approach to servicing the needs of the homeless is what she calls “a market-driven approach.”

“We always give the homeless coats and blankets by asking them what they need,” Jones said.

And like so many of those who work with homeless vets, Jones says veterans are deserving of the country’s compassion.

“These people have served this country; we need to serve them,” Jones said.

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