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Legislation aims to reduce homelessness for veterans in Suffolk

Suffolk County would transfer surplus property to nonprofits to create housing for homeless veterans under bills passed Monday by a legislative committee.

The three bills also would place a county veterans services officer at Department of Social Services offices one day a week; create a web portal for help in accessing local, state and federal services; and create a census of homeless veterans in Suffolk County.

The measures passed the Suffolk Legislature's Veterans and Seniors Committee Monday, and a public hearing before the full legislature is scheduled for Oct. 7 in Riverhead.

"The soldiers who go off to protect the ground we stand on should not have to come home to sleep on it," said the bills' primary sponsor, Legis. Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills), who chairs the committee.

Property the county acquires, primarily due to unpaid taxes, currently is given to towns and villages at no cost to create workforce housing. The proposal would allow the county to also transfer properties to nonprofit corporations for affordable housing for veterans and their families.

"That's going to be a game-changer," said Thomas Ronayne, director of Suffolk's Veterans Service Agency. He said the programs would be good not only for veterans, but also for the neighborhoods where the county owns vacant houses.

"Vets make good neighbors," Ronayne said.

The exact number of homes the county has in its inventory was not immediately available on Monday. Legis. Thomas F. Barraga (R-West Islip) expressed concern about the cost of implementing the bills, such as conducting a survey of the homeless population.

"It's a worthwhile piece of legislation. No one wants to vote against veterans. I won't vote against veterans. But will this require more personnel?" Barraga asked.

Stern said existing personnel initially would be able to set up the website, conduct the census and staff the social services offices, although funding for additional staff might be required in next year's budget.

Ronayne said that while there's no firm count of homeless veterans in Suffolk County, there are an estimated 750 to 1,000 homeless veterans on Long Island.

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