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Transitional home program to aid veterans opens in Camden

A 30-bed transitional housing program for veterans in Camden opened this week, with the first residents expected in January.

A 30-bed transitional housing program for veterans in Camden opened this week, with the first residents expected in January.

While homelessness among veterans is on the decline nationally, the numbers are expected to keep growing in Camden, local experts say.

Home for the Brave, operated by Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, was added onto the Aletha R. Wright "Vision of Hope" Center on Atlantic Avenue.

The shelter will offer services such as job training and placement, and mental health treatment and care. The goal is to have veterans eventually become mentors to others entering the program.

About 20 percent of Camden County's homeless are veterans, according to VOA's most recent survey.

"We are continually surprised at the number of veterans out there," said Dan Lombardo, president and chief executive officer of VOA in Collingswood.

The impetus for the $2.4 million shelter came two years ago when the group discovered a number of veterans living in Camden's Tent City, he said.

"It's not just Vietnam-era vets. It's Iraqi and Afghani vets. These are folks who deserve consideration and support for sacrificing a lot for their country. They should have someplace to go," Lombardo said.

The federal government has made strides in reducing the ranks of the chronically homeless and of veterans who are homeless, although it will probably not reach its goal of ending homelessness among those populations by 2015, according to an annual report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development released this week.

The number of homeless veterans declined from 76,300 in 2010 to about 67,500 in 2011, the most recent survey by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and HUD reports.

After an increase from 2009 to 2010, homelessness in Camden County also has been on the decline, with about 662 homeless - 16 percent of them veterans - on any given night, according to the county's most recent point-in-time survey.

The actual number varies from month to month, from 60 into the hundreds, said Gino Lewis, Camden's community development director, but those numbers could go up as federal stimulus money runs out.

"We're looking to consolidate services," he said. "We do anticipate more" homeless veterans.

Lombardo said he, too, expects numbers to rise with the economy stagnating and more veterans returning home. Not only are there fewer jobs, many veterans return with mental health or substance-abuse problems.

"Folks are coming back and finding an environment that's really changed," he said.

Many of those homeless servicemen and women find their way to Camden because of the bounty of services that they can't find elsewhere in the region, from shelters to job training and mental-health care.

"If someone is homeless in Burlington or Gloucester Counties, 9 times out of 10 they end up in Camden," said Dan Keashen, a Camden County spokesman.

Freeholder Ian Leonard, a staff sergeant in the 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard reserve unit, said they don't always get the help they need.

"People put them on buses and trains and say, 'If you go to Camden, they'll help you out,' but that's not always the case. Then they get stuck here and they have substance abuse or mental health issues and they don't want to go through traditional means of treatment."

With the Home for the Brave, he said, "they'll have somewhere to stay where it's warm and they'll get help all around."