EDISON, NJ – Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ron Rios got a little emotional today when he announced that the county had “functionally” ended homelessness for veterans at the Veterans Memorial in Roosevelt Park.

“I am thrilled, beyond all measure, to announce to you that Middlesex County has effectively ended homelessness for our veterans,” Rios said to a group of county officials and veterans under a bright sun at the memorial Thursday afternoon. “You will have to bear with me because sometimes I get a little emotional. This has been verified by three federal agencies. We have obtained ‘functional zero’ (homeless veterans in the county).”

Rios said that Middlesex County now has the systems and infrastructure in place to make sure military veterans who either are now, or are at risk of becoming homeless, will get the support they need to get permanent housing.

Sign Up for E-News

He said that the Board of Chosen Freeholders started on the initiative in 2012, creating an assistance program for homeless and at risk veterans, with the freeholders committing $100,000 each year to the program.

According to the county, the Veterans Homeless Assistance Program has assisted 300 veterans and their families since its inception.

The program helps veterans with funding for the first month of rent, security deposits, rental arrears and other financial obstacles for the families to have permanent housing, the county said.

According to the county, 53 homeless veterans and their families are now placed in housing since November of 2015.

An annual count of homeless people, conducted each January, found 44 such individuals in Middlesex County as of 2013, according to the county.

That number was reduced to 14 in January, and those individuals have since been housed, dropping the effective county rate to “zero,” officials said.

“Those of you that know me, know that helping veterans is a passion of mine,” Rios said. “This achievement, in particular, is very close to my heart.”

Rios said the county’s staff also worked with federal, faith-based and private veterans’ organizations to build the programs and funding to help veterans from ending up without shelter.

The three federal agencies verifying the county’s achievement included the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“We knew this was important, to house homeless vets,” HUD New Jersey Field Office Director Maria Maio-Messano said. “It was putting icing on the cake, the cake (in Middlesex County) was already there.”

She said the county was the first to sign on to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Challenge to Mayors to end homelessness for veterans.

“Now your program will be a model,” she said. “We have to get more counties and cities (in New Jersey) involved.”

In addition to the officials, representatives from several veterans’ organizations attended the announcement.

 “It’s a culmination of effort that we worked with in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 133 (in East Brunswick) for the last five years now,” Adjunct Quartermaster for Post 133, Michael Goff, said. “We started a fund for some of the items that the freeholder’s fund couldn’t cover.”

Goff said that program helps out in emergency situations, paying for hotel rooms or gas for work for veterans.

He also said that those funds can be paid faster usually than going through the state and county, which could take some time.

“It takes 7-10 days to get them into some housing,” he said. “We can cover that period (of time) before (the county) can get them in there.”

Goff, a retired 27-year Navy man, said the post holds events and contributed some $15,000 in the last few years for that emergency program, because the law prohibits the county from using it for hotels.

Fellow Post member Thomas Coohill, a Vietnam veteran and Post commander, said that getting homeless veterans into a home is only part of the group’s work.

“We also work very hard to keep them in the house,” said. “Once they go back out on the street, it is very hard to put them back in a house.”

Goff said that he has been very fortunate in his service and having the benefits and resources that others do not, and that he does not want veterans to be treated like the Vietnam era vets when they return from service.

“The difference today is that we don’t want the veterans today to be treated the way we were when we came home (from Vietnam),” Coohill, who served from 1968-71, said. “There is a history about that. So, every day is Veterans Day to us. Every day we wake up and help veterans.”

Coohill said that once veterans get into the system, there are programs, healthcare and resources to aid them, but signing in is the frustrating part.

“When you get in there, it’s good,” he said. “It’s frustrating to get into that system, it’s a federal bureaucracy. The good thing about today, is that there are a lot of services to help you (get in). ”

Although the county has reached an effective end to the problem of veterans’ homelessness, it doesn’t mean that every homeless veteran in Middlesex County has a roof over their head.

“’Functional zero’ is a milestone, but it does not mean that every homeless vet is off the street,” VFW Post 370 in New Brunswick said. “(It means) everyone identified (in the system) as a veteran, has been covered.”

Porter, who administers the VFW emergency funds, said that there are some homeless veterans that have not sought aid in the system and are, therefore, not counted in the official numbers.

“The infrastructure is there to accommodate them once they come in,” Porter said. “The problem is that homeless veterans are notorious for not identifying themselves for various reasons. It’s always going to be out there in one form or another.”

Did you like this story?

Give us your feedback at ckim@tapinto.net or nwells@tapinto.net and support local news.

If you did like it, please share with your friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, and don't forget to "Like" our Facebook Page!