It’s possible to end homelessness for veterans. Here’s where Maine stands so far

This year’s Maine Marathon wasn’t just another race for Rob McKann. Rob raced on Oct. 6 to honor the memory and service of his friend Kyle Coutu, who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010. Kyle’s family traveled to Maine to watch and support Rob. On top of completing the 26-mile-long dedication to the bravery and sacrifice of his friend, Rob used the moment to raise funds for Preble Street Veterans Housing Services.

America’s veterans – men and women driven to serve our nation at great personal risk – share the values of people here at home working hard to end veteran homelessness. With a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Preble Street joined with the city of Portland and Pine Tree Legal Assistance two years ago to develop Veterans Housing Services, which helps low-income veterans and their families find and maintain stable housing.

Part of a nationwide effort to fulfill the VA pledge to end veteran homelessness by 2015, Veterans Housing Services has emerged as a highly successful model for reducing homelessness for veterans in our community. Helping to secure housing for veterans on the street and offering assistance to those at risk of losing their homes, Veterans Housing Services is an example of effective public-private partnerships that can solve some of our community’s and country’s greatest challenges and honor veterans like Kyle. And Jim.

Typical of many Maine boys, Jim grew up on boats and docks, working all day and sleeping at night on the water. Also like many Maine boys, he served his country in the U.S. Army.

But when he got back home, things turned difficult for Jim. He camped in the local woods for four years, unable to find affordable housing, with a meager income and declining health.

Luckily, with outreach from Veterans Housing Services, Jim found housing and a connection to VA health benefits, so he could live with dignity and the knowledge that Maine is determined to take care of those who served our nation.

Jim is just one example of how Veterans Housing Services’ expertise, intensive community outreach and focus on diligent boots-on-the ground relationship building and collaboration leads to success.

To date, Veterans Housing Services has served 308 veterans – either preventing homelessness or securing safe, permanent housing for homeless veterans and their families as quickly as possible.

Since Veterans Housing Services began operations, Portland’s overnight emergency shelter, Oxford Street Shelter, has seen a significant reduction in the number of homeless veterans, from an average of 25-40 veterans per night to a current average of 15-20, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness shows an almost 10 percent drop in veteran homelessness in Maine.

And we’re driven to do more. With increased attention and resources from the VA and strong support from Maine’s entire congressional delegation, Preble Street Veterans Housing Services is expanding across the state. Opening offices in Lewiston and Bangor and doing outreach wherever needed in Maine, Veterans Housing Services will replicate proven strategies and tactics and build on teamwork with partners like Maine’s regional Maine Military and Community Networks, the Homeless Veteran Networking Group, the VA Maine Healthcare System, and the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans department at Togus to make sure they have the respect, opportunities and security they have earned.

While Rob McKann does not know the homeless veterans who Veterans Housing Services will help with his contribution, their successes are tributes to his efforts and his friend’s great sacrifice.

From the Marine veteran and his wife who lived in shelters and tents and call their new apartment "our sanctuary" to the Navy veteran receiving housing and care after suffering a life-threatening stroke. To the female Army veteran who called her Veterans Housing Services worker to say "thank you" the day she received her first paycheck from a job she couldn’t have found without stable housing. These men and women facing tremendous challenges in their fight to secure a better life continue to demonstrate the courage, hard work and resilience that they brought to serving us in the armed forces.

It is our unfailing commitment to meet their hard work with our own hard work and to rigorously defend their hope for their future.

One homeless veteran is one homeless veteran too many, and with the continued work of Preble Street Veterans Housing Services, and other programs like it, we will realize our goals and ensure that the veterans living among us know by our actions how grateful we are for their service.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is ranking member of the Senate Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, and Mark R. Swann is executive director of Preble Street in Portland.