Two local agencies have partnered on a new way to fight homelessness among area veterans.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has OK’d a new initiative developed through a collaboration between Keene Housing and Southwestern Community Services.
Through the initiative, which focuses on homeless veterans first, 20 new subsidies will be offered to give people who are either without housing or have no permanent housing a place to call home. The program will later expand to other homeless people.
Project March will help get folks who are couch surfing off those couches, get people in shelters out of them and get people off the streets — and into affordable housing. The subsidies are funded through Keene Housing’s Housing Choice voucher program, which is HUD money that Congress appropriates. The new program is the result of Keene Housing’s board and staff making helping veterans a priority.
“We’re really excited. We think we will be able to end veteran homelessness in very short order in this region,” said Joshua R. Meehan, Keene Housing’s executive director. He received the approval letter for the program from HUD in the mail last Monday.
Project March, which exists only in Keene, is a product of Moving to Work, a program that allows housing authorities to design and test innovative ways to provide low-income families with affordable living and new paths to economic independence.
Veterans are at high risk for homelessness because they are dealing with numerous issues at once.
According to Veterans Inc., a Massachusetts agency that works to end homelessness among veterans, the primary causes for this problem include lack of income due to limited education and lack of transferable skills from the military to civilian realms; physical and mental health issues; weak social networks; substance abuse problems; and a lack of services.
According to HUD, an estimated 47,725 veterans are homeless in the U.S. on any given night. The number of homeless local veterans was not available.
Gov. Maggie Hassan sparked the idea for the new Project March program by writing a letter to Meehan asking him to make veterans a priority on a waiting list for housing.
But Meehan and John Manning, CEO of Southwestern Community Services, decided they could do better than bumping up veterans on a waiting list; they created a whole new veterans-focused initiative.
Their solution allows Keene Housing, with the help of Southwestern Community Services, to get housing for the homeless through Project March quickly, offer supportive services, and help them establish a housing history.
Project MARCH participation is open first to veterans, then to the chronically homeless and then to people who have been homeless for shorter periods of time.
Currently, a homeless person, or any applicant, would have to wait at least a year-and-a-half and up to seven years to be housed, depending on things like the number of bedrooms the applicant is seeking, Meehan said.
With Project March, participants will be housed by Southwestern Community Services immediately, and simultaneously will apply to be on Keene Housing’s waiting list. Because a homeless person’s address changes a lot, this will let him or her have a place to live with an address, while developing a housing history, which is necessary on many housing applications, according to Meehan. When the person gets to the top of Keene Housing’s list, that opens up the next Project March subsidy and the tenants can choose if they want to relocate or stay in the apartment they’ve been living in.
Manning said the concept came up in a meeting when they were tossing ideas around and he asked Meehan, “What can we do to get some subsidies?”
From there, they gained support from Hassan and other state officials and the collaboration took off.
“We were just sitting at a table; we knew there was a problem, and we found a solution,” Manning said.
The program takes advantage of both agencies’ strengths; Southwestern Community Services is good at finding people who need help and helping them get somewhere safe and stable, while Keene Housing can provide the subsidies.
Hassan said she’s in full support of the project and excited to see what the partnership will achieve.
“Our veterans have sacrificed bravely in defense of our freedom, and we must always work to ensure that they receive the full support that they deserve, including access to housing,” she said in an email.
“Through its Moving to Work Program, Keene Housing has proven to be a leader in the area of affordable housing and innovative services for all residents, and I have been proud to support their efforts to receive federal support.”
Congresswoman Ann M. Kuster, D-N.H., U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., also sent their support through letters and have been supportive of Project March since its inception, according to Meehan.
“My staff and I look for all different opportunities to help veterans make the transitions to leading successful, productive lives and being contributing members to our communities,” Kuster said Thursday.
She called it unacceptable when those who sacrifice to keep others safe have to fight for housing when they return home. She stressed the importance of prioritizing helping homeless veterans; sometimes, she noted, veterans need a variety of services and are facing many issues at once, and their hardships accelerate when they’re least equipped to cope with them.
Shaheen likewise said it’s important to help veterans first.
“I’m very pleased to see that Project March is becoming a reality thanks to the hard work of Keene Housing and Southwestern Community Services. It’s unacceptable that we have homeless veterans in our New Hampshire communities and across this country, and I’m glad to see that veterans will be given preference for services under this new program,” Shaheen said by email Thursday.
“Every veteran needs a place to call home.”
Southwestern Community Services has also committed to giving two months of supportive services to Project March participants and if additional help is requested, to providing it until it’s no longer necessary.
Program details are now being finalized. As soon as the funding is available from HUD, which is anticipated to be within a couple weeks, and contracts are approved, Manning said they will get the subsidies and start looking for people to house.
Ayotte commended their efforts.
“I applaud Josh Meehan’s hard work and dedication to finding new and innovative ways to serve our most vulnerable populations,” she wrote in a recent email.
“With his leadership and the dedication of his team, Keene Housing continues to show that the Moving to Work program works and that local flexibility ensures that communities are able to provide the housing options and services needed to meet the needs of their populations.”
Meehan expressed his excitement for the program to start soon.
“We are creating new programs that are custom-built for the community,” he said. “We’re launching.”