New Jersey's treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, traveled to the Hope for Veterans transition housing on Veterans Administration campus in Lyons on Wednesday to present a grant — but the trip also was an opportunity to tour a facility that has served more than 600 veterans since it opened.
The Hope For Veterans program is designed as a temporary stay for veterans who need health, psychiatric or career services to move forward with their lives. But during 2013, more permanent housing for 63 veterans is scheduled to be built nearby on the Veterans Administration property in the Lyons section of Bernards Township.
"It's a great program," said veteran Agifa Constable, who grew up in Old Bridge, and served in the Iraqi war. He said his case managers and other staff in the program help him coordinate services he needs.
Nine years ago, Constable, then 24, was injured in Iraq. He said he at first didn't realize the extent of his brain injury, which manifested itself in headaches and nosebleeds. He said he also is being treated for post traumatic stress disorder.
Constable, or "A.J." is also a recipient of the Medal of Valor for having saved his platoon officer’s life under heavy fire in Iraq, said Julia Bey Ahmet, vice president of development for Parsippany-based Community Hope. Community Hope oversees the 95-bed Hope for Veterans transitional housing program that opened in 2004, and brought about the planned Valley Brook Village housing to provide a permanent place for veterans to live.
In presenting the $97,230 Shelter Support Program grant on Wednesday morning, Sidamon-Eristoff said that the Governor's office has called this time of year the season of service — and that includes remembering veterans who have served.
The veterans so far served by the Hope for Veterans program in Lyons have contronted challenges of homelessness, illnesses and psychiatric problems, Sidamon-Eristoff said.
"It's really nice to know live in a society where we have the capacity and commitment to helping those who served," he said. About half of the grant is state money, and half comes from federal funds, he said.
Since the program began, the state has contributed roughly $500,000 in funding to the program, which began with 70 beds, and then expanded to room for 95 veterans, said J. Michael Armstrong, chief executive officer of Community Hope.
Anthony Oakes, veteran services director for Community Hope, said the latest grant will go to replace institutional linoleum throughout the facility with more home-like floor coverings.
The veterans stockpile their own food in a communal kitchen, but sometimes other groups pitch in. For example, the Gladstone Tavern in Peapack-Gladstone annually provides a Thanksgiving feast usually attended by about 50 to 60 of the veterans living at the facility, said J. Michael Armstrong, chief executive officer of Community Hope.
Although the building contains bedrooms, a kitchen, self-serve laundry and specialized rooms such as a computer lab also obtained through a grant, the heart of the program really is the services provided to veterans who live within, the executives from Community Hope said at Wednesday's presentation.
Services available through program
The minute they walk through the door, Oakes said veterans in the program are steered toward the medical, psychiatric or sometimes legal help they need from volunteer attorneys. Their residency is covered through federal funding, he said.
For example, some of the residents, such as Milton Davis, a trained auto mechanic who needs his license back to drive to work, had not paid or handled original motor vehicle fines or violations, and found themselves owing thousands of dollars of additional fees they can't pay without a job.
During the tour of the building, Davis joined the group and talked about how an attorney in the program had settled a back motor vehicle issue that will pave the way for him to drive again and return to working as an auto mechanic. Davis said he has begun using the computer room to look up solutions to auto mechanic problems.
"This program helped me a lot," said Davis, 59, who said he was a stateside cook for the Army during the Viet Nam era, and still enjoys cooking, sometimes for a group of senior citizens in Pennsylvania.
Oakes said that the average age of veterans in the program is 48 to 58. He said that many of the veterans who come to the program arrive with substance abuse problems that can be a way of self-medicating for psychiatric or physical stresses left over from their time in the service.
Common issues are post traumatic stress disorder or back problems from carrying heavy equipment, Oakes said.
The mentality of soldiers is that they often are reluctant to admit they need help. "They are trained to do it on their own," he said.
Because of that lag time, he said that an anticipated "tsumani" of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq will slowly trickle into the program when they realize they need the program's services.
The ultimate goal of the program — to find permanent housing and employment for the veterans — can be partially met in the future with the opening of Valley Brook Village, a permanent housing development of mostly one-bedroom but also some two-bedroom units due to open in 2013.
Ahmet said the $15.5-million funding needed for the project already has been acquired by Mass.-based Peabody Properties, which will develop the housing with Windover Construction, also from Massachusetts.
The veterans from the Hope for Veterans program will be eligible for the housing, but Ahmet said the details on the process for selecting occupants has not yet been finalized.
"This will be a concentrated veterans village where they can be assured of a permanent place to call home," Ahmet said. She said the camaraderie of being with other veterans will be an important part of contributing to their quality of life.
"A bond we can't imagine"
"They share a bond we can't imagine," she said.
The services at the Veterans Administration's medical facilities and through the Hope for Veterans programs will be available to the residents of Valley Brook Village, she said.
Oakes said that the best success stories of the Hope For Veterans program are those residents who are ready to deal with their challenges. But even some of those relapse, and sometimes return for what are usually shorter stays, he said.
The average time a veteran spends in the program is ten months, he said. But, he added, even after they leave, they can return for services through the program.
Davis said of Oakes, "He has an open-door policy."
Davis added of the many challenges faced by veterans in the program, the hardest part may be getting up to begin.
Note: An earlier version of this story identified Constable's first name as Agiba, based on information from Community Hope.