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New London's homeless shelters add beds for homeless vets dealing with mental illness, substance abuse

New London — The New London Homeless Hospitality Center has added beds specifically for chronically homeless veterans with mental illness and/or substance abuse issues who have been reluctant or unable to participate in supportive services.

The center, as of February, has three of these so-called "low demand" beds for this purpose. There's no requirement that a veteran be sober or undergo treatment as a condition of his or her stay. While these veterans are encouraged to participate in programming and access services, they are not required to do so.

"Because of their behavior, they wouldn't do well in transitional housing," said Mirca Reyes, veteran transitional housing case manager for the center, adding that the vets utilizing the low demand beds are under 24/7 supervision.

Reyes housed 34 of 38 veterans who came into the shelter last year, her first year on the job. Most of the vets she's helped to find permanent housing are now living in either New London or Norwich. In April, Reyes was honored by the local chapter of the Association of the United States Navy for her work.

"Some of them were living in cars. Some of them were couch surfing. Some were literally living out in the streets. Some we get transferred from treatment (programs)," Reyes said. "We do have homeless veterans who do not want to come in."

In addition to the low demand beds, the center offers what are known as bridge beds, for vets who have an income or, at least, a housing plan, and service intensive beds for vets who don't have a job or housing plan and might need mental health or substance abuse treatment.

Reyes said it usually takes three months to permanently house a vet who is utilizing the bridge beds and six months to house those using the low demand and service intensive beds.

Usually, there's a waiting list for the beds. Reyes recently housed a veteran who was living in the center's transitional home on Mountain Avenue, where vets share two-bedroom apartments. She predicted that the newly open bed would be taken by the end of the week. Eight people, including housing manager, live in the home when it's full.

Scott Meyer, 53, who served in the Navy from 1985 to 1993, has lived in the house since April 2018.

"Hopefully, knock on wood, I'll be out of here soon," Meyer said Monday in the backyard of the Mountain Avenue home, where Reyes had organized a barbecue for the vets living there.

Meyer recently received a voucher under a Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs program, known as VASH. The program provides rental assistance and ongoing case management treatment for homeless vets. Meyer said he hasn't worked since 2010 and has had two heart attacks, suffers from severe depression, high anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and has vascular disease.

Without the support he's received, "I'd be homeless," he said.

In 2015, Connecticut became the first state to be certified by the federal government as ending chronic homelessness among vets and was one of the first two states to be certified as ending all veteran homelessness in 2017.

That doesn't mean there will never be another homeless veteran but that there is a system in place to quickly identify homeless vets, ensure they are offered adequate shelter, and help them secure permanent housing with appropriate supports within 90 days.

HUD's annual homeless count identified 190 homeless vets in Connecticut in 2018; of them, 38 were in emergency shelters, 139 were in transitional housing and 13 were unsheltered. Fourteen vets were identified as chronically homeless. In 2017, there were 191 homeless vets, and 13 vets were identified as chronically homeless.

A person who is chronically homeless is defined as someone who has experienced homelessness for at least a year or has had three or more episodes of homelessness that total one year — while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability.


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