Federal grant targets homeless veterans in Cumberland County

PORTLAND — The Preble Street Resource Center is accustomed to helping the homeless navigate local and state bureaucracies to get the assistance they need.

Much of that help comes through either local general assistance programs, or through the state’s Department of Health and Human Services – systems the center knows well.

But there is a subgroup of the homeless, or nearly homeless, that is more difficult to reach. They’re proud, but scarred. They’re independent, but wounded. And they’re not used to asking for help. 

They are low-income and homeless veterans.

But it’s about to get easier to reach out and help those who served their country.

Preble Street was recently awarded a $750,000 federal grant through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families help to homeless veterans in Cumberland County.

Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street, said 60 percent of the state’s homeless veterans live in Cumberland County.

"Our goal is to cover all of Cumberland County," Bradley said. "(But) we know that most of those who we need the assistance will be in Portland."

In 2010, 347 veterans stayed in Cumberland County homeless shelters, according to Bradely. About 75 are considered chronically homeless, he said.

While many homeless vets share the same problems as other homeless people – mental health issues and substance abuse, Bradley said, they also struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

But veterans are eligible for a whole range of benefits from the VA.

"There’s a different bureaucracy with different entitlements" Bradley said. "There’s a whole system we’re going to be helping them navigate."

The new veteran’s program will be a collaboration between Preble Street Resource Center, the city of Portland and Pine Tree Legal, Bradley said.

The group’s grant was one of 85 awarded nationally through a competitive process that drew more than 400 applications.

The framework for the program will be an existing partnership between Preble Street and the city: the Housing Prevention and Rapid Response program, which is funded through stimulus money through December. 

That program seeks to help those on the verge of losing their housing as well as place the homeless in new housing. The city’s staff typically works with landlords, while Preble Street handles the case work.

Bob Duranleau, the administrator of the city’s Social Services division, said that program has placed 1,000 homeless people in housing.

"It’s worked really well," Duranleau said.

Bradley said Preble Street plans on hiring three additional case workers to focus on homeless veterans and two more staffers to focus on preventing homelessness.

Duranleau said the city expects to hire a staffer to focus on housing placement and another to coordinate financial assistance.

About 30 percent, or $200,000, of the grant will be used to provide direct financial assistance to veterans to help pay for security deposits, their first month’s rent, and utility connection fees – frequent obstacles to obtaining housing.

"This grant will help with those start-up costs people need to get into an apartment," Duranleau said. "That’s what’s exciting about this."

Bradley said many homeless veterans in shelters are from the Vietnam era, between the ages of 50 and 60. But he is concerned about influx of new veterans that may need help.

"We’re also seeing returning vets now, which is another whole group that needs special attention," Bradley said.

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are young with families, are returning to the U.S. at a time when job prospects are bleak, home foreclosures continue at a rapid rate, and the economy is teetering on the brink of a double-dip recession.

President Obama has made unemployed veterans a focus. In addition to the funding for homeless vets, Obama announced a "reverse boot camp" to reintegrate vets into society as well as more education funding.

Obama also challenged the private sector to hire 100,000 unemployed, post-9/11 veterans by 2013.

While the president’s programs are aimed at stemming the tide of homeless veterans, Preble Street must confront the hard truth that many of these veterans have already been passed by.

"We haven’t seen a lot of those (post-9/11 veterans)," Bradley said. "But that is a population of expected growth, especially a population that may be out there now really struggling that isn’t showing up at shelters, that isn’t looking for services, but really needs help."

Bradley said he expects program to be up and running by early fall. He said Preble Street will reach out to Cumberland County communities through their general assistance programs and through the state’s social service hot line, 211.

Unfortunately, Bradley said he doesn’t expect to look to far to find people to help.

"We’re going to have plenty of people to work with," he said. "We think we can make a really big impact," he said.