Marine veteran William Ehrie joined Community Hope’s transitional housing program ready to give up. At 62, he was homeless, angry and had a number of health problems.
“When I came here, I honestly did not have any expectations,” he said. “I just thought this is going to be another bureaucratic program.”
But in the last year Community Hope in the Lyons section of Bernards has become Ehrie’s home. His initial resistance faded as he learned to focus on his mental health and interact with other veterans, and, since then, he has become an active participant. He even started reading again.
“I’m an old Marine, I’m stubborn, but I finally started to realize that this was for me,” Ehrie said. “Had it not been for Community Hope coming here, I would be either dead or in prison.”
Transitioning into civilian life can be one of the most difficult processes for veterans, many of whom are distressed, disabled or homeless, many say.
Yet, like Ehrie, hundreds of veterans have taken the steps they need to become self-sufficient again through Community Hope at the VA NJ Healthcare campus.
Focusing on veterans
The Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress found an estimated 62,619 veterans who were homeless on a typical night in January 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Hundreds upon hundreds of veterans are in Central Jersey, many of whom seek assistance from Community Hope.
Community Hope, which helps young people deal with homelessness and mental illness, began focusing on veterans about a decade ago. In 2004, the organization opened Hope for Veterans, the largest transitional housing program for homeless veterans in the state.
The program started with 75 beds and a number of case managers to help veterans battling drug addiction, mental-health issues and injury, among other issues. Today Community Hope houses 95 veterans and includes everything from emergency response procedures tojob training services.
The organization has launched other programs, including the Support Services for Veteran Families, the Justice for Veterans Initiative and the new Valley Brook Village on the Lyons campus. SSVF works to prevent at-risk veterans and their families from becoming homeless, while the Justice for Veterans Initiative offers free legal aid to help veterans reinstate licenses or handle old traffic tickets. The Valley Brook Village, which is set to open in September, will be a permanent residence for veterans.
Community Hope’s veterans often take advantage of multiple programs, as their needs might be met by one entity. Part of the reason Community Hope has so many success stories is because it can cater to each veteran, making it easier for him or her to overcome homelessness or joblessness.
The on-site case managers and doctors work with these veterans so that they understand their physical and mental health conditions, said Director of Development Julia Ahmet.
“If they’re struggling with health issues, we want to help them to understand their chronic illness and be in a position where they can manage that illness before they leave the program,” Ahmet said.
Veterans have up to two years to graduate from the program, but they can graduate earlier if they feel ready. While a few members have dropped out of the program, Ahmet said, they tend to come back and succeed the second time around.
The recovery process
Ehrie said that if he can change, anyone can with help from Community Hope. They just have to apply themselves.
“The guys who come, they don’t walk away,” he said. “We’ve had a few walkaways, but it’s not because of Community Hope. It’s because the men who came here simply weren’t ready to come here.”
While doctors and case managers make themselves available, they do not coddle the veterans, members say. Leroy Shivers, 54, said the program allowed him the freedom to leave the grounds after curfew, which came in handy when he needed to visit people to make amends.
“They’ve allowed me to grow,” said Shivers, an Air Force veteran who is nearly two years into the program. “When I first got here, I was asked my goals and they’ve given me an opportunity to take care of my goals.”
Leaving also helped Shivers confront the presence of alcohol and drugs in everyday life and resist temptations in those settings, he said.
Veterans within the program attended Alcoholics Anonymous or participated in activities to help them address their problems. In some cases, they have helped veterans take on more responsibility. Shivers, who attends AA meetings five times a week, served as the group’s chairman until his work hours started conflicting. Yet he remains active and recently was appointed the group service representative.
“I’m actually growing even more because you have to grow in order to hold those positions,” he said. “You can’t just sit there and stagnate. You have to grow, you have to make the efforts, you have to learn and question. This is a position that gives me the opportunity to do that.”
A place to call home
Community Hope’s Valley Brook Village has received support throughout the community. The project was run by a partnership between Peabody Properties, of Braintree, Mass., and Windover Construction of Manchester, Mass., which raised the $15.5 million for predevelopment and construction fees.
The village of rental units also is expected to receive support from the Somerset Hills YMCA. The YMCA is set to donate its proceeds from the June 13 Flag Day 5K Run & Walk to the village.
The 62-unit village will comprise of two townhouse style residences and an apartment complex that will house a game room and common rooms. The construction should be done over the summer so that veterans can move in by September, according to Ahmet.
Permanent housing often is hard to come by for veterans, said Jenn Stivers, director of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families within Community Hope. Veterans usually have to get a HUD-VASH voucher through Section 8 to apply for permanent housing.
“Those vouchers, just like any other type of housing voucher, are limited in their availability and criteria,” she said, “and then you have to wait periods of time to get new vouchers.”
For Ehrie, who cannot work because of his medical problems, the idea of having a home seemed out of the question until he heard about the Valley Brook Village.
For decades, he has not had a home. Ehrie spent 14 years in prison, getting out in 1992. (He called himself “jailbroken,” a state of mind where he didn’t care about the consequences of doing more time in prison.) After his release, he remained homeless until a couple of years ago when he checked into Easter Seals and eventually joined Community Hope. It was not until his recovery that he truly started to miss the idea of having a place to call home.
“Since 1992, I haven’t had a home,” Ehrie said. “I didn’t have a place where I could shut the door, lock the door and say this is mine … I think that (Valley Brook Village) would be a great step for me. Then I could prove to myself that I could do it.”
Shivers said housing is the last of his short-term goals that he needs to address. His stay with Hope for Veterans ends in July, but he has already sorted out all of his legal issues with child support and his license, while securing a permanent job. And as of May 23, he has been clean for four years.
“I’m looking forward to the new village that’s being built here for veterans,” Shivers said. “Hopefully, I get to be one of the first veterans to be there, but that’s another issue that we’ll have to discuss down the line. But it’s there. The opportunity is there.”
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