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Long Island

LI nonprofits part of national effort to end homelessness among veterans

A group of former veteran volunteers, check to

A group of former veteran volunteers, check to see if any veterans are homeless, at Smithpoint County Beach in Shirley on Feb. 12, 2015. The group's goal was to aid homeless veterans with shelter, food and clothing. Photo Credit: James Carbone

One bitter morning last month, as windblown snow and ice needled their cheeks, Phil Erwin and Rich Dellasso made their way to a waterside campsite at Smith Point County Park.

Erwin and Dellasso -- outreach counselors for a Suffolk nonprofit serving homeless veterans -- had gotten a tip that a man was living in a battered camper in the park, braving temperatures that the day before had sunk to 9 degrees.

Joined by a half-dozen other aid workers wearing winter parkas, they came bearing sandwiches and warm socks -- and hopes that they could coax the man into coming in from the cold.

"You never know if they will accept help," Dellasso said. "Sometimes you have to come back a second or a third time. But you have to try. They deserve a chance."

It was the kind of search the counselors had undertaken many times before, sending them to the nooks and hollows where homeless veterans often seek refuge: in unheated garages and cars, under train station platforms or in tents hidden in the woods.

This time, Erwin and Dellasso came up empty. They later learned the man they had been looking for had left the camper only minutes earlier.

The outreach workers are part of a network of local nonprofits, federal programs and veterans advocacy groups that is trying to meet a goal set four years ago by President Barack Obama to end homelessness among veterans nationwide by the end of this year.

A federally mandated count identified 174 Long Island veterans living in shelters or outdoors last January.

But Greg Curran, homeless veterans program manager at the Northport VA Medical Center, said that's almost certainly an undercount. While Curran believes progress has been made in recent years, there still could be 600 or more Long Island veterans without permanent housing or at risk of becoming homeless.

Seeking a living wage

One of them was Mike Scott, a veteran of military conflicts from Desert Storm to a 2006-07 deployment to Iraq, during which he survived a highway bomb attack on an oil tanker convoy.

Scott, 51, struggled to find a living wage after leaving the service, turning down an $8-per-hour offer from Dollar Tree as being too little to be worth the gas money. By 2013, he was living with his wife and three children in a relative's home. When the relative moved to Georgia in late 2013, he and his family had no place to go.

His $1,900 monthly military pension nets him about $900 after a government debt is deducted. That's too much for the family to qualify for emergency shelter, but not enough to pay both rent and food.

Scott had his wife and children move into a shelter on their own while he slept in his 2002 Ford Explorer, sometimes parking in friends' driveways in Bay Shore.

A fellow veteran suggested that Scott get help from the Economic Opportunity Council of Suffolk County, the agency that employs Erwin and Dellasso. A caseworker there helped him find a real estate broker with success convincing landlords to overcome their fears about renting to homeless families.

The organization also put up $3,600 for his security and broker's fee for a three-bedroom house in Middle Island, and arranged for furnishings donated by a local funeral home. It also arranged to have his monthly rent covered by the post-9/11 GI Bill while he's trained to be an automotive technician.

Scott remains fearful that he and his family could be swallowed again by homelessness.

"To me, it's a temporary fix, because when school is over, then the money stops," he said. "But I'm just thankful for right now, and hope everything works out."

Greta Guarton, of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, said there are encouraging signs that fewer Long Island veterans are suffering.

She said a combination of locally administered federal programs -- including rental vouchers, emergency cash aid, job placement and transitional housing -- have placed aid workers here on pace to meet Obama's goal.

Randy Brown, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said nonprofits administering federal grant programs in Phoenix, Salt Lake City, New Orleans and Los Angeles have virtually eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans there.

"That tells us the strategies that are out there work," said Brown, whose organization is based in Washington, D.C.

A network of nonprofits use these federal grants on Long Island, including United Veterans Beacon House, Concern for Independent Living, Suffolk County United Veterans, Services for the Underserved and the Economic Opportunity Council.

The EOC administers a $1.3 million federal Supportive Services for Veterans Families grant. The grants, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, go to nonprofits that provide a range of services to veterans in need of shelter, including outreach, housing counseling, legal services and financial assistance.

Helping fellow vets

Veterans Erwin and Dellasso are driven to help those in need.

Erwin, 47, of Wading River, a former Air Force chief master sergeant who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, missed military service so much after retiring in 2013 that he contemplated joining the National Guard. But when someone told him that the EOC needed help persuading homeless veterans to seek help, he signed up.

He now looks for clients armed with tips from parks employees, emergency responders and workers at churches, soup kitchens and laundries.

Dellasso, 31, of Selden, an Iraq veteran whose father served in Vietnam, was a veterans service counselor while an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida. He said he was so moved by the needs of veterans that after completing graduate work at Hofstra University, he applied to work at the EOC.

Last year, Dellasso made repeated visits to a Vietnam veteran who was living in a wooded area near the Ronkonkoma train station, before the veteran finally agreed to accept help. He was taken to the Northport VA, where doctors treated him for a potentially life-threatening illness, said EOC outreach director John Rago.

"Sometimes it can be frustrating," Dellasso said at the Smith Point campsite. "But it can be uplifting because we try to help people who can't or don't know how to advocate for themselves."

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