By Briana Vannozzi
U.S. Coast Guard veteran Julie Whipple spends most of her afternoons here, in a garden she started at Veterans Haven South. It’s a transitional housing program in lower Camden County for vets in need of resources.
“Veterans are used to being self sufficient and being able to work through problems and stress and then when we become overwhelmed it’s hard to reach out and say, ‘Hey it’s my turn,’” Whipple said.
The success of these facilities is one reason New Jersey is seeing a decline in the number of military veterans without a place to call home.
“It’s more than transitional housing. What we’re trying to provide is a comprehensive program for all our veterans so they can get money, get healthy, get housing,” said Veterans Haven South Superintendent Walter Nall.
Veteran homelessness dropped 20 percent in New Jersey, according to a count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, from 696 a year ago to 556 in 2016. That’s an even greater decrease than the national count, which dipped 17 percent from the year prior and nearly 50 percent since 2010.
“For Veterans Haven, our tides tend to ebb and flow. So we normally hover around 70, 75 veterans in and out. There are times when we have more vets moving out on the economy than we have actually coming into the door, so that may be an indicator that homelessness is starting to decrease, but it moves with the weather patterns and it also moves with the seasons,” Nall said.
“I was overwhelmed to actually find a place like this. I was like, wait a second. There’s people just like me going through the same exact situation and there’s actually resources to help us bolster our backgrounds and come together and start our lives all over again,” said Jeremiah Mills, mass communication specialist, U.S. Navy Third Class.
Mills was staying with a friend, getting back on his feet until that friend was re-stationed in another state. Veterans Haven is helping him finish his bachelor’s degree, find work in the meantime and look for housing.
“Sometimes life happens and things can get rough and you can find yourself — I know I found myself — in this situation. I’m doing the best I can now and just trying to get on the up and up,” Mills said.
Just this week Gov. Chris Christie signed legislation that gives veterans priority for housing. He’s also expanded a statewide housing rental voucher program.
“I feel that there’s a lot more people who need help but don’t know about it because it took me a while to find out about this place. Sometimes you have to know people in order to get ahead,” said Jennifer Salas, 92nd Alpha Army and Army National Guard.
“Veterans and fellow veterans, we’re all family. And we’re all here to help each other, you know? If we’ve got it, we give it,” Whipple said.
Veterans Haven, like many of the transitional housing and support centers in the state, is guided by a motto founded in the military: “Against all odds, find the wounded and bring them home.”