Homeless veteran program coming to Fort Monmouth

Soldier On provides support services, medical assistance

Staff Writer

WhenMonmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry learned about Soldier On, a program focused on helping homeless veterans, she took action to bring the program to Fort Monmouth, Eatontown.

“There is nothing like this in New Jersey,” Burry said in an interview on Nov. 4. “I am anxious to share this with everyone because it seems like such an exceptional program and one that has been proven.

“Sometimes you read about things and they haven’t been put into practice, they don’t come to fruition. This is a situation where it is functioning, it is operational, and it seems tailor-made for Fort Monmouth.”

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, of the 130,000 to 200,000 veterans who are homeless in the U.S. on any given night, 2,500 live in New Jersey.

The nation’s homeless veterans represent between one-fourth and one-fifth of all the homeless, and veterans are three times more apt to be homeless than the general population.

And many more are struggling with excessive rent burdens and thus at increased risk of homelessness, according to the coalition.

Burry, chairwoman of the Veterans Subcommittee of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority, said she and other FMERA members recently met with Jack Downey, president and CEO of Soldier On, to discuss the program and the possibility of bringing it to the county to help veterans in the area.

Members of FMERA were pleased to hear that there are several potential locations on the 1,127-acre Fort Monmouth property for Soldier On.

“The idea of being able to provide equitybased housing for vets at Fort Monmouth is tremendously exciting, and the staff is recommending the board to pursue [this program],” Bruce Steadman, executive director of FMERA, said at the FMERA meeting on Nov. 10.

Burry said that roughly 175 veterans would be included in the Fort Monmouth program.

Downing said Soldier On has substantially increased the number of veterans the program serves and the scope of services delivered.

“We assist veterans with both picking up the pieces of their lives and filling in the gaps that public agencies do not address,” Downing said in a press release.

“At our core, Soldier On is about integrity: the integrity of veteran residents, the integrity of staff, and the integrity of our commitment to work tirelessly to improve the lives of veterans in the community at large. “We are moving beyond simply offering a response to veteran homelessness to providing a permanent solution.”

The mission of Soldier On begins with getting homeless veterans off the streets. Housing, meals, health care, substance abuse aftercare, mental health counseling, job assessment, training and placement assistance are included.

Soldier On also offers a continuum of care that includes immediate and long-term housing, treatment and recovery for addiction, food, and clothing, as well as medical, counseling and job-related services, according to the press release.

“It is an all-encompassing program and it is often right on-site so the veterans don’t have to travel to different venues,” Burry said.

It could take up to a year to see the program become active at Fort Monmouth, depending on whether new facilities or rehabilitation of existing facilities would be involved. According to Burry, 75 percent of the funding would come through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which works directly with Soldier On.

“There are other areas of monies that would come in on this. It’s not a burden that is solely going to fall on the Fort Monmouth location,” Burry said. “We have the support of the state. … They are the leading body, and we also have the [N.J.] Economic Development Authority. They would also assist in the necessary funding.”

Downing has agreed to direct and help with setting up the program and will work closely with the staff, she said.

Currently, Soldier On operates in two locations: a 165-bed shelter in two buildings leased from the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, Mass., and the Berkshire Veterans Residence in Pittsfield, Mass., a transitional living facility.

These facilities are managed by formerly homeless veterans, an approach that ensures that those served are empowered and take a large role in creating and maintaining their own living environment, according to the Soldier On website, www.wesoldieron.org.

A women’s program is also part of Soldier On. Jackie K’s House on the Leeds campus is a transitional housing program designed for homeless women veterans that provides a safe, structured environment that allows time to regain stability.

Participants are offered an opportunity to develop new coping skills, education and employment, and access to affordable housing and limited-equity home-ownership options.

“This [program] is particularly poignant and important because it’s really giving back to the segments of the veterans that need it the most. That is what Fort Monmouth is all about,” Burry said.