By KATHY CHANG
EDISON — Middlesex County has effectively ended veterans’ homelessness, an action that has been certified by three federal agencies.
“We have obtained Functional Zero,” exclaimed Middlesex County Freeholder Director Ronald Rios as he announced the good news in front of the New Jersey Veterans Memorial in Roosevelt Park in Edison on Oct. 6.
Many veteran groups as well as fellow Freeholders Charles Tomaro, Charles Kenny and Blanquita Valenti, Maria Maio-Messano, New Jersey field office director for the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, Middlesex County Sheriff Mildred Scott and county staff members were on hand for the announcement ceremony.
Functional zero means the county has the infrastructure and systems in place to ensure that any veteran experiencing or at risk of homelessness will get the support he or she needs to quickly obtain a permanent home.
“It’s a team effort,” said Rios. “But when you think about what each of these men and women have done for each of us, you realize that helping them transition back home after serving our country is the least we can do.”
This has been certified by three federal agencies: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Since November 2015, a total of 53 homeless veterans and their families have been permanently housed.
Each January, the county participates in the Point in Time (PIT) initiative, which is a snapshot of the number of homeless persons in the county.
“In 2013, in the one-night count, we had 44 homeless veteran households,” said Gerry Mackenzie, department head for the Middlesex County Department of Community Services. “In the 2016 PIT one-night count, we were down to 14 veteran households, all of whom have since been housed or are in the process of being housed as per the criteria for functional zero.”
In addition, 300 veterans/family members have been assisted by the department’s Veterans Housing Assistance Program (VHAP) since its inception in 2012. The freeholders commit $100,000 each year to fund the program, which Rios said will continue.
County staffers work with the nonprofit 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.
VHAP funds help with first month’s rent and security deposits, rental assistance, including payment of rental arrears, and other costs that had been obstacles to finding and maintaining permanent homes, Mackenzie said.
The funds are used by veterans deemed homeless by the Housing and Urban Development’s definition as on the street, living in a car or other structure not meant for human habitation.
The funds also assist veterans precariously housed — staying with friends or family, couch-surfing and those at risk of homelessness, meaning they are behind in their rent and facing eviction.
In addition to the county’s funds, the partners utilize voucher programs, including HUD VASH, which is administered through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“The VA New York/New Jersey Health Care Network is elated that Middlesex County has been recognized for having effectively ended veteran homelessness,” said Joan E. McInerney, network director for the Department of Veterans Affairs New York/New Jersey Veterans Integrated Service Network. “Middlesex County has demonstrated its commitment to meeting the needs of vulnerable veterans, and VA is proud to be an integral part of the partnership network that will prevent veterans from becoming homeless in the future.”
Valenti, who mentioned that her brother and husband are veterans, spearheaded the county’s initial program to end homelessness in the county and was the force behind the establishment of the county’s Homelessness Trust Fund, which predates the county’s existing Veterans Assistance Program.
“Successful partnerships make all the difference when you are trying to serve those in need,” said Valenti, chair of the county’s Community Services Committee.
Maio-Messano agreed saying it was all about collaborative effort in reaching such an achievement.
“It was a matter of putting the icing on the cake … the cake was already there,” she said of the work to end homelessness on the county level. “There has been a 42 percent decrease in veterans’ homelessness [in Middlesex County since 2013].”
In addition to the VHAP program, the county was the first to endorse first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, which they did through a resolution.
“Middlesex County will serve as a model,” said Maio-Messano, noting there are 37 mayors in the county.
Matthew Doherty, executive director of U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said when committed leaders work together to implement effective strategies, “we can end homelessness in this country, not just for veterans, but for everyone.”
John Weglos, a U.S. Army veteran and retired Edison police officer, became emotional when asked about the announcement.
“It’s absolutely wonderful … it was very much needed,” he said. “Some veterans come home and are successful with their lives, but too many good people do not even come home.”
Weglos said he served eight years during the Vietnam War era. When he returned home, he became a police officer until the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Then he reenlisted in the Army where he worked with veteran causes and deployment.
He is part of the NAM-Knights Motorcycle Club, which honors the memory of American veterans and police officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
Edward Marczak, who served in the U.S. Navy in 1968 and 1969, said Freeholder Rios has been a great friend.
“Even though he may not be a veteran, he takes care of veterans,” he said.
Marczak, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 233 in New Jersey, said the county has been involved in various projects all over Middlesex County supporting veterans, including converting the Highland Park Reformed Church into more than a dozen apartments for veterans and their families.