Coming home for some war veterans means slipping off the track of chasing a fading American dream. Despite the yellow ribbons of support for the troops festooning patriotic front yards and backs of cars, there’s an army of homeless former soldiers seeking shelter in cities and towns across this country. Compounding the shock of becoming homeless can be another bitter discovery: Few communities provide programs to help veterans who hit a rough patch get back on their feet. Consequently, an estimated 154,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Why are so many once-able military troops living a hobo life straight out of bleak stories from the Great Depression? Besides the “factors affecting all homelessness -- extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to health care -- a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks,” says the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans web site. While the VA assists about one-third of the homeless vets, the majority have to look for state and local programs.
“The most effective programs for homeless and at-risk veterans are community-based, nonprofit, ‘veterans helping veterans’ groups,” says the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. “Programs that seem to work best feature transitional housing with the camaraderie of living in structured, substance-free environments with fellow veterans who are succeeding at bettering themselves. … There are about 250 community-based veteran organizations across the country that have demonstrated impressive success reaching homeless veterans. These groups are most successful when they work in collaboration with federal, state and local government agencies, other homeless providers, and veteran service organizations.”
When an empathetic religious group in a suburban New Jersey town proposed turning an empty church into apartments for homeless veterans, however, neighbors turned out to vehemently oppose the plan. What happened next showed the other side of America. When the proposal came up for a vote by the Highland Park Board of Adjustment recently, the room was packed by a crowd of veterans wearing military caps, peace activists in protest T-shirts, church members and residents of the central New Jersey area appalled by the neighbors’ complaints.
“Joe Vanliew broke down as he uttered his first words to the Highland Park zoning board, one of dozens of people who spoke Monday at a tense, four-hour meeting at which the board ultimately agreed to allow a shuttered church to be converted into an 11-unit housing complex for homeless veterans,” The Star-Ledger correspondent reported. "’I hope the sacrifices of every veteran are remembered tonight,’ the white-haired man said, his voice cracking. ‘They were in the thick of things, and I can't believe that anybody in Highland Park or anywhere else wouldn't support the veterans.’"
The objecting neighbors, who included a veteran or two, maintained that the conversion would add traffic to a busy street, ruin an historic building and put veterans in substandard basement-level apartments that, paradoxically, would cost much more in government grants than would be needed to buy houses on the market.
During the hearing, testimony was provided that the housing plan had the approval of federal agencies seeking to address the fact that “New Jersey has more than 3,500 homeless veterans, according to Victor Carlson, a psychologist and chief of homeless services for the Department of Veterans Affairs New Jersey Health Care System,” The Star-Ledger reported.
The veterans’ home project was launched by Highland Park Reformed Church pastor Seth Kaper-Dale, who told the newspaper that “the project stemmed from years of preaching about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of his congregation would ask him to pray for nieces and nephews going to war, then they asked him once again to join them in prayer when the veterans returned, he said. ‘They were praying for their nephew who came back and was sleeping on someone's couch.’"
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