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July 31. 2013 5:25PM

Vanessa Sarlo Talasazan: Veterans make up a vulnerable population, but help is available

THIS SUMMER has been a winning one for New Hampshire's most vulnerable veterans.

With estimates of 600 veterans homeless in the Granite State during the course of a year, and several thousand just a few happenstances away from becoming homeless, relief cannot come soon enough.

Thankfully, new resources are available, giving credence to the lofty goal of ensuring that no veteran is forced to sleep on our state's streets.

Homelessness is a complex challenge without a single solution. Veterans have unique needs that differ from other homeless subpopulations. It is often difficult to find employment that uses the skills obtained in the military, forcing some vets to work in jobs that don't pay a living wage.

Many returning combat vets have post-traumatic stress disorder and other invisible scars that become apparent over time while slowly eroding the foundation of their lives. This can lead to self-medicating through drugs and alcohol.

Isolation sets in when family members and friends are no longer willing or able to help. Eventually, a veteran finds himself out of options. Homelessness is an all-too-common result.

Not too long ago, one-third of the U.S. homeless population wore a military uniform. Today, thanks to a concentrated effort by the Veterans Administration in partnership with community-based organizations, veteran homelessness has declined by about 70 percent nationwide.

Harbor Homes, a 33-year-old nonprofit that provides the bulk of housing and services to homeless veterans in New Hampshire, believes that it is possible for ours to be the first state in the nation to essentially end veteran homelessness.

Working from the state's four-year plan to accomplish this, through Harbor Homes' Veterans FIRST programming, homeless and at-risk veterans can gain access to resources designed to end and prevent homelessness: housing, employment, health care, transportation, financial assistance and more.

Most important, the programming works.

Since 2004, more than 300 veterans moved from homelessness to independence through Veterans FIRST, and 430 obtained employment. In Greater Nashua, the number of homeless, unsheltered veterans was reduced from a high of more than 100 in 2006 to just one in 2013.

Services for homeless vets continue to emerge. In Manchester, BAE Systems Independence Hall, a 26-unit apartment complex for homeless veterans and their families is now open.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs awarded Harbor Homes a second year of funding for its Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.

This statewide initiative will provide up to 300 veteran households who are low-income and at risk of homelessness, or already homeless, with temporary financial assistance and case management.

While all of this is good news, there is still a lot of work to be done. Like most nonprofits, Harbor Homes relies heavily on individuals and companies within the state to fill a nearly $300,000 annual gap between what grants and loans provide, and what the expense is to provide services.

This amount doesn't address the challenges unique to New Hampshire that exacerbate veteran homelessness: the lack of a full-service VA hospital, which forces veterans to travel for hours into Massachusetts or Vermont to obtain some specialty medical care; poor public transportation options in much of the state, making it difficult for veterans in need of even basic care to get to a New Hampshire-based VA Medical Center; and a declining manufacturing and skilled-labor industry, which limits the availability of jobs that afford veterans the opportunity to reintegrate back into society and earn a living wage.

Through this column, we hope to raise awareness of homeless veterans in New Hampshire and identify opportunities for the community to be part of the solution.

To learn more, visit www.harborhomes.org.

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Vanessa Sarlo Talasazan is Vice President of Development and Grant Compliance for Harbor Homes Inc. and the Partnership for Successful Living. Email her at v.talasazan@nhpartnership.org.


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