Homeless veterans are target of new housing initiative

Making a transition to civilian life after duty as a US Coast Guard seaman who boarded ships in the Persian Gulf looking for weapons of mass destruction was not easy for Christopher McDonald.
In almost an instant, the rigid structure and constant threat of danger were gone, and McDonald struggled to cope when his four years of service ended in 2005.
He was homeless off and onand struggled with substance abuse. Eventually, he sought help and turned his life around. “When you’re in the military and you’re sent off to a war zone and you get out,’’ he said, “it’s really a tough adjustment.’’

McDonald, 32, who lives in Charlestown Navy Yard and plans to enroll in Bunker Hill Community College, said he hopes to volunteer with a new federally funded program to house 50 chronically homeless veterans.
“Anyone can help a vet, but other vets know what’s going on with them and the issues we face coming home,’’ he said yesterday at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, where federal, state, and local officials announced the Statewide Housing Advocacy for Reintegration and Prevention initiative.
The program is funded by a $323,000 federal grant, which allowed the state to hire four peer support specialists, one substance abuse counselor, and one psychiatrist. Participants receive federal housing vouchers specifically for veterans, mental health services, and psychiatric evaluations. They also are placed in special housing that comes with round-the-clock supportive care, including case management.
“We’re not just going to let them fall, because when the time came, they stepped up for us,’’ said Coleman Nee, secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. “So, we’re stepping up for them.’’
The program builds on a network of services that authorities give credit for the state’s 21 percent drop in homelessness among veterans since last year, a rate nearly double the decline nationwide. Each December, authorities take a snapshot of the homeless population, counting men and women living on the street.
In 2011, there were 1,268 homeless veterans, down from 1,597 the year before. The national goal is to end homelessness among veterans by 2015.
“This is really a noteworthy day: Progress has been made; numbers have been reduced,’’ said Vincent Kane, director of the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Your community has been able to put the veteran first, and that is what has made you successful. You are a team, and we want others to emulate that.’’
Nee attributes the state’s decrease in homeless veterans to the collegial spirit of homeless and veterans’ advocates. He said that sense of cooperation is already at work in the new pilot program.
“The best way to reach a veteran,’’ he said, “is through another veteran.’’