Community initiative to tackle homeless veterans’ crisis
A new initiative to address the crisis of veteran homelessness in the Lehigh Valley was recently unveiled by local leaders, government officials and community partners at the Lehigh County Government Center, Allentown.
Lehigh County Office of Veterans Affairs Director Tom Applebach announced the creation of the Lehigh Valley Homeless Veteran Fund.
Additionally, he announced that state Sen. Pat Browne, R-16th, had secured $200,000 in grants for the fund.
Guided by a five-member committee, the fund will pool donations into grants to be distributed among agencies or service organizations providing housing services, employment assistance, mental health care and substance abuse treatment to veterans, among other programs.
The fund was established to fill the void left by federal funding cuts in 2017, which resulted in a significant reduction in outreach programs and services for homeless and at-risk veterans.
“It was an unexpected loss a couple years ago,” Applebach said. “We scrambled to fill that loss and we managed to get $100,000, kind of a one-time grant to fill the hole, but while we were in the middle of trying to get that grant approved, we lost more additional federal funding.”
The 2019 Point-In-Time Count, an annual one-day effort to tally an area’s homeless population, recorded 38 homeless veterans in the Lehigh Valley.
The number has stayed relatively steady since 2013, when veterans became a subcategory in the count.
Applebach said Catholic Charities, the sole VA-funded veteran provider that remained after the funding cuts, spent approximately $85,000 on homeless veterans last year, an average $1,800 per veteran, through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
He emphasized that while the Homeless Veteran Fund fills in the funding deficit and allow organizations such as Catholic Charities to continue or expand their services, it is not a county program.
“This is a community program. The idea is an effort to overcome the current and possible future funding cuts to the direct funding services from the VA,” Applebach said.
He said the county had granted $30,000 to the fund through the Community Development Fund and that additional donations have already been received from several municipalities and community organizations.
Browne said he was proud to join the initiative, noting that veteran homelessness was “nothing short of a tragedy.”
He spoke of the difficult transition many veterans face when reentering civilian life.
“Some have struggled tremendously rejoining their community, finding employment or dealing with lingering mental or physical health challenges from their time of service,” Browne said. “Their challenges and struggles compound and advance, until their very basic possession and reliance on consistent shelter becomes a question, not a reality.
“To say it is unacceptable that 38 men and women who were willing to give their lives for all of us in service of our country are now living on the street is a pathetic understatement.”
With the $200,000 of grant funding, which according to the senator’s office is the largest state commitment specifically targeted toward homeless veterans in the region, Browne said he hopes it will bring stability to veterans’ lives.
“The Lehigh Valley Homeless Veteran Fund will help to ensure that pathways to sustained housing, job placement and mental health services are available to our region’s homeless veteran population,” Browne said. “By providing these necessary funds, agencies will have the ability to turn lives around, provide a pathway toward self-sufficiency and forge a new opportunity and future for our honored veterans.”
He concluded by emphasizing the community’s responsibility to assist people in their time of need, especially veterans whose “sacrifices have defined our community in the first place.”
“Now is our turn, as it is every day in civilian life, to answer the call,” Browne said.
Alisa Baratta, executive director of the Third Street Alliance and co-chairwoman of the Lehigh Valley Regional Homeless Advisory Board, spoke about the “significant issue” of homelessness across the Lehigh Valley.
She said 2,800 households were assessed as homeless with an additional 370 at risk for homelessness last year.
Of the 2,800 households, 693 were single adults, 338 were families with children under 18, 119 were unaccompanied youth, 90 were pregnant and parenting teens, 52 were fleeing domestic violence, and 219 were veterans.
Baratta said efforts of the RHAB, its partners and the larger veteran community were critical to diverting 700 households out of homelessness and placing 1,100 households, including 67 veterans, into shelter or housing.
She said the Homeless Veteran Fund could boost these efforts by providing additional opportunities for community contribution.
“They are passionate and dedicated groups of individuals who work tirelessly to assist individuals and families experiencing housing crises; the veteran community has been a significant partner to us in this effort and we are grateful for their support and to support them in return,” Baratta said. “The Lehigh Valley Veterans Fund now presents an opportunity for businesses, civic groups, individuals, anyone who wants to assist to end veteran homelessness an opportunity to get involved.”
Baratta thanked Browne for his support and for ensuring the 211 system, the backbone for reaching out and assisting people experiencing homelessness, remains adequately funded.
“We’ve worked hard to bring new funds from the public and private entities to address the crisis of homelessness, and we are grateful for the support from Sen. Browne and his colleagues, who have provided much help for our efforts,” Baratta said.
Lehigh County Executive Phillips Armstrong said he was proud to see the community step up in the face of the funding problem to ensure that homeless veterans receive the support they need.
“We could have just said, ‘Eh, that’s it, we lost the money,’” Armstrong said. “There was a need, there was a problem, and thanks to the people you’ve heard from today, they’ve stepped up, made a contribution and they brought things about.”
“Everyone being here in the room today shows that we care, and it shows that we can continue to move forward, we can get this done,” Applebach said in closing. “We’re never going to end homelessness, but we can manage it, and we can get those folks who are homeless housed and be ready for the next person to pop up and get them housed.”
Baratta asked that people facing homelessness reach out for help.
“Please dial 211 and ask for assistance,” she said. “There are hundreds of people across the Lehigh Valley waiting to help you.”