The Heroic Mission to End Veteran Homelessness in New Hampshire
One group is on track to meet its goal — and help our deserving Americans find the support they need
Harbor Homes launched in 1980 and began focusing on helping veterans in 2004, when an individual was found dead along a river in New Hampshire. It was winter, and his death was due to exposure to the elements.
When Peter Kelleher found out that the deceased was a veteran, he knew something had to be done. No person should risk his or her life to serve our country only to come home and die due to a lack of support services. His mission from then on would be to end veteran homelessness in New Hampshire.
Since then, Harbor Homes has grown immensely, and the number of homeless veterans in New Hampshire has plummeted. In 2012, there were only 11 homeless veterans in the entire state, and the numbers of homeless veterans have decreased by 70 percent over the past several years. The organization achieved an end to veteran homelessness in Greater Nashua in March 2017, and is on track to meeting its goal of ending veteran homelessness in all of New Hampshire very soon.
Harbor Homes has pulled in local government aid, mayoral assistance, and multiple supportive service agencies to make sure that veteran needs are met, regardless of what they are. The umbrella of services includes six nonprofit agencies that work together to provide support to all veterans who need help, stationed near the centrally located transitional housing facilities run by Harbor Homes.
New Hampshire is a very rural state, however, and the appeal of rural living is one that a number of veterans living in the state share. Getting services to veterans who balked at the idea of living in the city because they preferred a quieter life where they could fish and hunt was one challenge that was preventing the goal to end all veteran homelessness in the state.
Recently, Harbor Homes held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new facility for veterans in Plymouth, New Hampshire, called Boulder Point. This is farther north from where Harbor Homes currently has housing, in an area where a lot of veterans have been living in the woods. Up in the mountains, access to transportation and services is challenging. The new home will be located in an area where the veterans housed there will be able to access key support services, without having to move down to the city.
Boulder Point is going to help a lot of homeless veterans who have previously been difficult to serve. The building is due to be open for tenants in early spring. The building will have 30 units, 25 individual units for veterans only and five family units, for both veteran and nonveteran families. There will be AA groups on site, and a Walmart and other important infrastructure are nearby. This project came with a hefty price tag and, while a chunk of it was paid through government credits and subsidies, it wouldn’t have been possible without aggressive fundraising from the local community.
The idea is to help the tenants rebuild their faith in themselves as individuals who have accomplished great things by building a sense of community based on their shared experiences. The hope is that living there will move tenants away from the label of “homeless” and allow them to gain the label of “veteran.” I spoke with Mandy Reagan, program manager for Supportive Services for Veteran Families through Harbor Homes, who said, “Often the veterans who come in for help have been exposed to challenges in many areas of their lives. The stress of complex challenges, crisis, and the homeless experience can impact veterans’ ability to recognize their strengths and accomplishments.”
The idea is to help the tenants rebuild their faith in themselves as individuals who have accomplished great things by building a sense of community based on their shared experiences.
“Instead, their focus is on all the things they have done wrong,” she continued. “One of the goals the organization has is to build veterans back up again, so that they can be confident and sure of themselves once more. Showing them that we believe in them and that they are worthy of care is one way we are working toward that.”
Another major part of the work is making the resources that already exist more accessible to veterans. Many veterans leave the military not knowing what to expect and where the resources are to help them if they are in a crisis. “So often we hear from veterans, ‘I didn’t even know this existed … Why didn’t they tell me about this when I left the military?’”
Harbor Homes has set an aggressive goal for themselves when it comes to fighting veteran homelessness. Nationally, the goal for providing housing to a homeless veteran once he or she has been identified is within 90 days. At Harbor Homes, the goal is 30 days, and the average time for placing identified homeless veterans into housing is 14 days.
The organization really works to attack the issue of veteran homelessness from all ends, providing full support services, whatever they might be. However, the traditional model for doing so has been turned on its head somewhat at Harbor Homes. Normally, support services are provided first, and then an organization works to find housing for homeless individuals.
But that means they have no home base, no place to store their medications, and no assurance that they will be able to get to appointments. It’s hard to tell your doctor that you can make it to an appointment at 11 a.m. on a Monday if you have no clue where you will be sleeping on Sunday night. Having a place where you can keep your things and know they are safe makes it easier to commit to a program of mental health and employment training that an individual might need to get themselves into permanent housing again.
At Harbor Homes, homeless veterans are placed into safe housing first. Then the support services begin.
One of the big things that has helped Harbor Homes is the development of relationships with landlords who can provide affordable housing to veterans. Housing in this country is so expensive right now, and finding affordable homes is challenging.
Harbor Homes works closely with a number of organizations and landlords in the southern part of the state to provide whatever services may be needed. This includes an employment training and placement program, case management and housing assistance to low-income veterans facing economic crisis, a full range of health care services, and substance abuse treatment.
It seems to be working. The organization has an 86 percent retention rate after one year. That is not insignificant. Considering the fact that many homeless individuals are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse problems, keeping them in housing is challenging, to say the least.
Another mission of the organization is to destigmatize the homeless. While it is true that many homeless people struggle with mental illness or substance abuse, there are also those who just hit a streak of bad luck from which they couldn’t recover. In a society where many are living paycheck to paycheck and the ends are just barely meeting, one setback could be the thing that sends things over the edge and lands an individual or a family on the streets. Often, these individuals just need a little assistance to get them back on track again. The organization works to educate the community about what homelessness actually looks like, and who the people are that are homeless.
Mandy Reagan believes that Peter Kelleher’s drive to pull in leaders is a big factor in the organization’s success. She also spoke at length about some of the data-sharing systems that they have in place to make sure none of the veterans get lost in the system.
When a veteran is identified, a notice is immediately sent to all the service providers that are available to help and the vet is matched to the best housing program as quickly as possible. The way the organizations work together increases their ability to be successful in their mission to end veteran homelessness.
One thing she wanted to stress is that there are resources available for veterans who are struggling. She hopes that all veterans, or anyone facing a crisis, will have memorized three simple numbers: 2-1-1. You can call that number from anywhere in the U.S. and be connected with local support services to help you in a crisis.
Peter Kelleher was right. People should not risk their lives to serve our country and then come home to be shunned. Organizations like Harbor Homes that honor and support our veterans by recognizing the potential impacts of serving and how those impacts can contribute to struggles upon reintegration are the entities that are truly making a difference in their local communities.
Chloe Longstreet comes from a long line of veterans on both sides of her family who have served in all of the different branches of the military. She graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a degree in political science and anthropology and is devoted to helping people tell their stories and preserve their legacies by helping them write, edit, and publish their memoirs through her company, Awen Books and More. This OpsLens piece is used by permission.