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Safe return: Preventing veteran homelessness

12/1/2016
Robert Corley, Executive Director, NeighborWorks Southern Mass

Challenge: On any given night in the United States, more than 100,000 veterans are without a home. Many of the other estimated 12 million former service members face significant hurdles in maintaining the homes they do own. Sometimes they live in dilapidated dwellings to avoid becoming homeless. For over 20 years, NeighborWorks Southern Mass (NWSOMA) has supported this underserved population by developing properties specifically intended to house homeless veterans. We have transformed many vacant, blighted neighborhood eyesores into new, energy efficient homes and green spaces to support formerly homeless veterans. Unfortunately, the broader solution does not end with providing housing and beautifying neighborhoods. To make any real continuing impact, NWSOMA has had to put significant effort into raising public awareness of the veterans' dire predicaments and to breakdown the stereotypes that act as barriers.

An apartment complex that has a "Home Sweet Home" sign and the U.S. flag

In the United States, an estimated 100,000 veterans are without a home. Many of the other 12 million veterans can't afford to maintain the homes they do own. Sometimes they live in dilapidated dwellings to avoid becoming homeless. Many are in need of much more than housing, but they lack access to services for mental and physical health care, job training and financial assistance.

For over 30 years, NeighborWorks Southern Mass (NWSOMA) has worked to meet the critical demand for special needs and affordable housing in our community. In collaboration with social service providers and government agencies, we strive to provide housing for the homeless, battered women and their children, people with developmental and physical disabilities and veterans.

In 1996, we began developing housing for homeless veterans, starting with an eight-unit home in Quincy, MA. Since then, we have developed and assisted in the development of 44 homes on the South Shore with a preference for veterans and their families and we have six more veterans' homes under development now. Our partner in this project is Father Bill's & MainSpring, which provides emergency and permanent housing, job skills training and other services in southern Massachusetts.

Through partnerships with veterans' service agencies, we are able to extend our mission beyond housing. Massachusetts is the only state in the country that provides a veteran's service agent in every city and town. The agents help our veteran clients and their families access physical and mental health care, job placement assistance and financial education services. Quincy's Veterans' Service Director George Nicholson praised the collaboration at a ribbon cutting ceremony for one of our new properties.

"Veterans are living with the depression and despair of not being able to provide adequate, safe housing for their families. Suddenly, out of the darkness of that despair gallops the white knight known as NeighborWorks … and what was no more than a dream is now a reality," he said.

Recently, we were given the opportunity to expand our community partnership to include one of our residents. Several years ago, Dave C., a veteran who needed a place to live, was introduced to us by his case manager at Volunteers of America. Dave says he did not fit the stereotype of a homeless veteran. "Most people think of a veteran as someone who is missing a limb or has PTSD, but many of us are not that," he says. "We just need a little push to get us back on our feet."

After Dave's service in the Navy, his personal struggles led him to live on the couch at his brother's, who is also a veteran. It was then that he realized he no longer had a home, a car or any of the other defining aspects of independence. He was finally motivated to reach out for help, even though he did not feel that the help out there was really intended for him. Dave now lives in one of our properties in Weymouth, MA, and works as a case manager for Volunteers of America.

Dave agreed to share his story in a short video intended to raise awareness about the prevalence of homelessness veterans. During the process he decided he wanted to explore other veterans' journeys and now hopes to someday produce a feature length documentary entitled Safe Return.

David O., a retired sergeant and Iraq War veteran, is another success story. David lives with his wife and four children in a four-bedroom, single-family home that NWSOMA and the City of Quincy purchased and renovated for veterans' housing in 2013. David and his family had been homeless. "I am truly grateful for being able to provide my family with a safe and comfortable home," David says. "My kids love the house, they have friends that sleep over and play in the backyard. It's just been amazing. I could not ask for more."

Among the things we've learned along the way are that experience is what connects us to the community we serve. At NWSOMA, we recognize how important it is to go beyond providing affordable housing and to share the experiences through telling the stories of those we support. Without allies throughout our community, we would be unable to help our veterans grapple with the challenges of day to day life and gain the momentum that they need to thrive.

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