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Program helps homeless veterans attain housing

Tackling the problem of homelessness among veterans one city at a time, nonprofit groups working with the City of Boston aim to find housing for veterans and their families.

HomeStart Inc., a nonprofit that works to prevent and eliminate homelessness in greater Boston, teamed up with City of Boston officials and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans to implement a program that helps chronically homeless veterans in the city find permanent residencies.

Housing vouchers, issued by the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, are expected to help 80 veterans and their families find homes, said President and CEO of HomeStart Linda Wood-Boyle.

“We want to get them into clean and safe neighborhoods, which we are responsible for scoping out,” she said. “We’ve contacted landlords and looked at apartments already and we’re hoping to move forward with that process fairly quickly.”

Peter Dougherty, director of homeless programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the need for housing for homeless veterans is pressing.

“Everyone in the country deserves a right to housing, and veterans are a significant proportion of the homeless,” Dougherty said. “We want to help those who have served our country to be able to have a place to come home to every night.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development estimates in 2011 there were 67,000 homeless veterans nationally, while the state of Massachusetts alone had 2,255. Another 1.5 million are considered at-risk for homelessness due to poverty or poor present living conditions.

“We see a staggering amount of veterans that are left without homes, particularly those who served in Vietnam,” Dougherty said. “With more military personnel coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, however, we expect to see a younger generation of homeless veterans in the years to come.”

HomeStart decided to pursue a veteran housing project earlier in 2012 after witnessing how many vets are affected in the Boston area alone.

While the national average might be daunting, Wood-Boyle said, localizing the problem by city is a much more manageable task.

“There are countless veterans across the country at this time, and it’s an amount that would be impossible to take care of all at once,” Wood-Boyle said. “If we focus state by state and further down to city by city, it becomes a much easier problem to handle.”

Boyle said if cities across the country were to target even a couple hundred veterans to get off the streets, noticeable change would occur.

The NECHV collaborated with HomeStart on the program, said NECHV Director of Community Affairs Stephen Cunniff. He said the challenges that veterans face when coming back from service puts them at a unique disadvantage compared to other homeless individuals.

“Veterans in particular have been through traumatic, life-changing experiences that they carry back the United States with them,” Cunniff said. “These experiences cause veterans to cope in harmful ways, and if they have no options for housing, then that will only feed things like drug and alcohol abuse as coping mechanisms.”

Single males make up the majority of homeless veterans in the U.S., while most housing funds prioritize families and single women with dependents, Cunniff said, and this leaves a large amount of veterans without access to aid.

“This program won’t discriminate against any veteran based on their marital or dependent status,” he said. “Everyone is fair game with this.”

HomeStart has already been in contact with Boston-area landlords and apartment owners to find available space that can be used in the program, Wood-Boyle said.

The organization aims to start getting families and individuals situated in their new homes by the end of the year, she said.

“We can’t wait to get started and work to get these vets out of the tough situations they’re in,” Wood-Boyle said. “They’ve sacrificed so much for us, and we want to give back to them now.”

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