First Lady acknowledges efforts to end veterans’ homelessness


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The First Lady, Michelle Obama, sent a congratulatory letter to Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios on Middlesex County’s certification for effectively ending veterans’ homelessness in the county.

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“I am thrilled to congratulate Middlesex County on the extraordinary achievement of ending veteran homelessness,” 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 (HUD) 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,” Castro said in a telephone call with Rios, Freeholder Blanquita B. Valenti and county staff, according to a statement released by the Middlesex County Office of Communication.

Castro said the first lady established the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, which Middlesex County joined in 2014.

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), which was created by the freeholders in 2011. The program assists veterans and their families who are at risk 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, according to the Office of Communication.

County staff works 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.

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.

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.

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. “Home ownership rates are at one of the lowest levels in decades.

“We really need communities [working] on this. Keep on going. Keep on making everyone proud,” Castro said.

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