Brother, Can You Spare a Room?

Boston Herald

July 6, 2008 – The painful experience of homelessness is ending for more than 200 Bay State veterans who are getting a chance to start over under a revived federal housing program that is providing $2.5 million in rental assistance. Last week, housing authorities from Boston to Northampton began issuing 245 rental assistance vouchers to chronically homeless veterans. In the Boston area, 1,950 former service members are considered homeless.

“With the new number of homeless vets that we are creating because of Iraq and Afghanistan, this is focusing on their needs,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Somerville), who will make a formal announcement Tuesday.

The vouchers are part of a $72.3 million federal spending plan to give housing subsidies to 10,000 homeless vets nationwide through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a spokeswoman said. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are 154,000 homeless veterans nationwide.

Rental assistance issued by HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program works like Section 8 vouchers and will allow veterans to rent private housing at a fixed rate of 30 percent of their income. All voucher recipients will be assigned a case worker from the VA Healthcare System.

“It’s a blessing,” said Stephanie, a 48-year-old former Army parachute jumper, who asked that her last name not be used. “I’ve been living for 17 months in the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. I’ll be ever so glad to get out of there.”

Although Vietnam-era soldiers make up the majority of the homeless veteran population, shelter operators said they are seeing a rise in homelessness among Iraq and Afghanistan war vets.

“They are coming much faster, and they are coming with much more individual needs than the Vietnam veterans,” said Steven Como, vice president of Soldier On, which runs veterans shelters in Northampton and Pittsfield.

Como said the traumatic brain injuries and the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by many young soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is contributing to the rapid slide into homelessness. Last week, seven Iraq war vets stayed at a Soldier On shelter, Como said.

Unemployment among Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans is also three times the national average, said Vincent Perrone, president of Massachusetts Veterans Inc.

The federal government began issuing rental vouchers to homeless veterans with severe psychiatric disorders or substance abuse problems in fiscal year 1992. But the funding stopped after three years, a HUD spokeswoman said.

The new vouchers are available to all homeless veterans regardless of whether they are mentally ill or substance abusers.

“The key here is the supportive services being provided by the VA,” said state Veteran Services Secretary Thomas Kelley.

The Boston Housing Authority will issue 105 vouchers, while the remaining pool will be split evenly between the Northampton Housing Authority and state Department of Housing and Community Development, according to HUD.

The VA is hiring three new Boston and Brockton case workers to provide services to voucher holders, said Karen A. Guthrie, the health care for homeless veterans coordinator at Boston VA Healthcare Systems.

Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, who leads two different statewide councils dealing with homelessness and veterans services, said the state may secure even more rental aid during a second round of federal funding. “It’s about time we put our money where our mouth is, and this a good step in that direction,” he said.

John, a 51-year-old Marine veteran who did not want his last name used, said he’s been depressed since moving into the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in March 2007.

“Having never been homeless before, I was surprised at how traumatizing it is,” said John, who was issued a voucher last week. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”

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