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Leaders seek solutions to end veteran homelessness

Keene Sentinel - 12/21/2023

Dec. 17—Local officials and property owners convened in Keene Friday morning to discuss homelessness among veterans and how to help.

According to Mayor George Hansel, Keene is close to solving the issue among its own population, though it will take cooperation from regional leaders and property owners to do so.

"It requires constant attention," he said. "The unique thing about this issue in our community is [that] it's achievable. With coordinated efforts, we can get veteran homelessness to zero. ... That's what it's going to take. I know I'm committed to it and I know the city council is too."

Around 20 people gathered inside a conference room in the Hampton Inn on Key Road. Following a brief breakfast, Hansel led the discussion alongside associates from Harbor Care, a New Hampshire nonprofit that aims to connect people and families with health care, housing and human services.

"Veteran homelessness is really at a level where, with a little bit of effort, we can get it to a functional zero and that would be a wonderful thing for our community, for our state — and all of you are in a position to help," Hansel told attendees.

David Tille, director of community engagement and government relations at Harbor Care, said veterans can struggle to find employment and housing, due to their distinct experiences while serving.

According to Harbor Care's website, more than 5,000 veterans in New Hampshire struggle to afford housing each year. One reason is that the skills veterans earned don't always translate well to jobs in the civilian sector. Additionally, some veterans might have a service-related handicap or mental health issues.

Harbor Care runs four transitional and permanent housing complexes in New Hampshire for unhoused veterans, with two in Nashua and two more in Manchester and Plymouth.

Out of 120 veterans Harbor Care has identified as experiencing homelessness in New Hampshire, Tille said about half of those are staying at one of Harbor Care's transitional housing facilities on any given day.

"Our veterans have given so much for our country, protecting our lives and liberties and no veteran who's ever served our country and seeking housing should never be forced to sleep on the streets," Tille said.

Tille cited a Yale University study conducted in 2018 that found unhoused veterans are five times more likely to attempt suicide than other veterans, and veterans are more likely to experience homelessness than nonveterans.

"Finding a home is the first step in finding healing," he said.

Tille told a reporter that part of the work they're doing at Harbor Care is raising awareness of the resources available to veterans as well as encouraging landlords to lease apartments to former service members.

Katie Tovar Paciulan, program manager with Harbor Care, said the nonprofit is aware of 16 veterans in Cheshire County experiencing homelessness, five of whom are in Keene.

Four of the five unhoused veterans in Keene are staying at Hundred Nights on Water Street, according to Mindy Cambiar, executive director of the emergency shelter. She added that getting these veterans connected with more permanent housing is difficult among a staggering scarcity of available apartments in the area.

"I don't feel like they're close, because there's no housing for them," she said. "That is the big issue, and it's the same for just about everybody at Hundred Nights — there's no turnover in the housing, so we've had people there for over a year."

A lack of housing, particularly affordable apartments and homes, is a problem that extends beyond Keene. Communities across the state are seeing low vacancy rates and rents out of line with median incomes, per a N.H. Housing report released in July.

Per a housing needs assessment report Camoin Associates presented to Keene city councilors in April, the Elm City will need an additional 1,400 units over the next decade to meet the current demand on the housing market.

Harbor Care provides financial assistance to veterans in the form of a housing subsidy, funded through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, in which the organization will pay 50 percent of a veteran's rent for up to two years, Paciulan said.

As much as it helps those with military service in search of housing, Tille added that it also serves as an incentive to landlords.

"That's guaranteed income for the landlord," Tille said. "You at least know you'll get that coming in."

Daniel Santiago, operations manager of veterans services at Harbor Care and a veteran of the Army for 26 years, said that it's likely there are unhoused veterans Harbor Care is unaware of, and it's important to identify them and get them connected with the right resources.

"If we don't know, we can't help them," he said. "Once you identify them, then we start helping them."

Veterans in need of assistance or who may be at risk of homelessness may dial 211 to be connected with New Hampshire's emergency hotline service, or they can reach Harbor Care at 603-305-1122.

This story has been updated to correct the location of the meeting.

Hunter Oberst can be reached at 355-8546, or hoberst@keenesentinel.com.

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