MIDDLESEX COUNTY, NJ - First Lady Michelle Obama sent a congratulatory letter to Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios on the County’s certification for effectively ending veterans’ homelessness in the County.
“I am thrilled to congratulate Middlesex County on the extraordinary achievement of ending veteran homelessness,” Mrs. Obama wrote in a letter dated Oct. 24. “Thank you for your leadership – and that of your colleagues in Middlesex County – for the work you are doing and will continue to do. I am so proud of your community’s commitment, dedication, and resolve to reach this milestone, and I am grateful for all you have done for America’s heroes.”
In addition, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro called to congratulate Middlesex County officials for effectively ending veterans’ homelessness in the County.
“On behalf of President and Mrs. Obama and a grateful nation, I thank you,” Secretary Castro said in a telephone call with Freeholder Director Rios, Freeholder Blanquita B. Valenti, and county staff.
Secretary Castro explained that veterans’ homelessness is an important issue for President and Mrs. Obama. In fact, he said, the First Lady established the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, which the County joined in 2014.
During the telephone call with the Secretary, Freeholder Director Rios said: “Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for taking the time out of your schedule to show your appreciation and that of President and Mrs. Obama for our reaching the finish line. We are very committed to and concerned about our veterans.”
Earlier this month, Middlesex County received certification from three federal agencies, including HUD, that it has achieved functional zero for veterans’ homelessness. Functional Zero means that Middlesex County has the infrastructure and systems in place to ensure that any veteran experiencing homelessness will get the support they need to quickly obtain a permanent home.
The driving force behind the County’s achievement is its Veterans Housing Assistance Program (VHAP), created by the Freeholders in 2011. The program assists veterans and their families at risk of homelessness or experiencing homelessness. The Freeholders commit $100,000 each year to fund the program from the County’s Homeless Trust Fund. So far, the program has helped 307 veterans and families.
County staff works with the non-profit Coming Home of Middlesex County, two federally funded Supportive Services for Veteran Families programs (Soldier On and Community Hope), and a network of veterans organizations and Community and faith-based partners.
In addition to the County’s funds, the partners utilize voucher programs, including HUD VASH, which is administered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
At the time of the announcement, Rios said: “Those of you who know me, know that helping our veterans is a passion of mine, and this achievement in particular is so very close to my heart. This is the story of many hands and heads working together to achieve a common goal. I thank and commend our County staff and our community partners for sharing my passion and my vision for ending Veterans Homelessness. We did it. And we did it together.”
“Everyone here is very proud of your efforts,” Castro said. “I ask two things: One: that you take every opportunity to share what you learned through the process. That it takes cooperation among local (governmental entities), non-profits and the Federal Government. And, two, you have shown tremendous effectiveness (in ending veterans homelessness). I ask that you apply that to ending chronic homelessness, family homelessness and youth homelessness in the years to come.”
Freeholder Rios said: “Our staff is up to the challenge.”
Rios explained that the County allocates $1 million annually to the Housing First Capital Fund, which helps provide units for homeless persons throughout the County.
Units have been set aside for homeless individuals and families in numerous developments, including Kilmer Homes in Edison and the County’s latest project, the rehabilitation of the historic Roosevelt Hospital in Edison, which will have five units set aside for the formerly homeless. Veterans will have preferred status for 25 percent of the 84 apartments available.
In addition, developers have all agreed to work through the County’s Coordinated Assessment Process to fill units set aside for the homeless.
“I’m not surprised that you are making progress on this,” Secretary Castro said. “Thank you to those who have worked on this issue for several years. None of this can be accomplished at the snap of the fingers or overnight.”
Castro explained that homelessness is particularly relevant today as rental affordability is a challenge. “Family incomes are stressed since 40 percent to 50 percent of the income must go toward rental costs,” he said. “Homeownership rates are at one of the lowest levels in decades.”
“We really need communities executing on this. Keep on going. Keep on making every one proud,” Castro said.