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Homeless Veterans Given Housing, Skills and Hope in Bernards Township

The tour of Building 53 at the Veterans Administration (VA) Health Care campus in Lyons on Wednesday, Dec. 12, began with a few members of the press, several representatives of the non-profit Community Hope organization,  and the New Jersey treasurer who visited to  publicize the state’s latest grant to assist homeless veterans here.

Along the way, two veterans who reside in the 95-bed transitional housing facility at the VA unexpectedly joined the entourage, sharing insights about their own personal struggles and ongoing recovery.

“I was living in my car prior to this,’’ said Agifa Constable, an Army veteran who now stays at Lyons. “I do have the support of Community Hope. It takes a lot of the stress off.’’

Constable, the recipient of the Medal of Valor for having saved his platoon officer’s life under heavy fire in Iraq, was injured in a tank explosion.

Today he receives training and other support services from Community Hope through its “Hope for Veterans’’ program.

Since the residential treatment facility was opened in a renovated hospital building at the Bernards campus in 2004, more than 600 veterans have “graduated’’ from the program.

The program is run by Community Hope, a Parsippany-based organization that provides counseling and medical services to treat depression, substance abuse, post traumatic stress disorder and mental illness.

Veterans living here have responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning, and receive job training at an on-site  computer lab.

“We have our own chore list,’’ Constable explained as the tour briefly stopped by a laundry room. “No qualms here.’’

They are also given legal assistance to help clear up impediments such as outstanding motor vehicle violations.

“The main thing for me is getting my license,’’ said Milton Davis, a 59-year-old Army veteran who also joined the tour. “The hardest part of falling down is getting back up.’’

Originally from Newark, Davis served stateside in the Vietnam War era. He said he had no computer experience prior to coming here.

Now feels comfortable working on computers on his own, researching information and even looking up some old friends.

“They are very patient with you,’’ he said of the staff members.

Davis said the program and services offered “help you to dig deeper into yourself, to see what you can do for yourself and for others.’’

State Support

On hand for the Dec. 12 tour was State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, who brought along good news.

The state, he said, was providing a $97,230 “Shelter Support Grant’’ for the facility.

The state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) awards shelter grants each year to various non-profits and governmental agencies operating homeless shelters and transitional housing facilities.

It was the fourth grant given to Community Hope for this program.

“Helping veterans get back on their feet at a time of personal crisis is a small way of acknowledging the debt we owe them for the sacrifices they made to keep us safe,’’ Sidamon-Eristoff said.

His visit was part of Gov. Chris Christie’s “Season of Service’’ program in which key members of the administration visit various community facilities throughout the state during the holidays.

“I’m sure this won’t be the last time the state of New Jersey supports Community Hope,’’ Sidamon-Eristoff added.

The latest grant will be used to replace old, worn carpeting throughout the building with new wood flooring. Bedrooms and common areas such as a recreation room will be upgraded.

The work will help make the building look “as home-like as possible,’’ said J. Michael Armstrong, chief executive officer of Community Hope.

“The state has been an essential partner throughout the eight-year history of this program,” Armstrong said. “The first Shelter Support grant enabled us to furnish the program and open the doors in 2004. Since then, the state’s grants have made it possible to acquire vans to transport veterans to medical and other appointments, and maintain and improve our 95-bed facility.”

The goal of the program is to ultimately provide employment and permanent housing for the veterans.

All veterans entering the program undergo a medical and mental health assessment and are required to see a physician. They are then engaged in “productive and healthy activities’’ such as employment training or education, and are also transported to attend community events and recreational and social activities.

They are also advised to establish a savings plan and connected with other veteran entitlement programs.

With the Iraq war having ended and the war in Afghanistan winding down, officials are expecting to see “a tsunami’’ of returning U.S. veterans in the coming years, Armstrong said.

To further assist homeless veterans, a $16 million rental housing complex is under construction at the Lyons campus. Once complete, it, too,  will be run by Community Hope.

Called “Valley Brook Village,’’ the 62-unit complex is being built on the southwest corner of the 297-acre Lyons VA property, near the township’s Pleasant Valley Park.

On the day of the tour, dozens of construction workers could be seen at the site. Framing work is well under way.

Armstrong said the project could be finished as soon as this spring, with a possible July 4th “opening ceremony’’ scheduled.

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