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Blumenthal pushes bill that includes housing for homeless veterans

Editor's note: This version clarifies the headline of this story.

Hartford — Proposed federal legislation would make it easier for states like Connecticut to convert temporary housing for homeless veterans into permanent housing.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was in Hartford on Monday to promote the Veterans First Act, a reform package that he and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., say will improve accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs and improve health care and benefits for veterans, among other overarching provisions. Isakson is chairman and Blumenthal is the ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, which unanimously passed the bill.

At a news conference at Cosgrove Commons, a 24-unit apartment building that's currently housing 18 formerly homeless veterans and six young adults, Blumenthal said that the bill takes "some of the success stories from Connecticut and makes them models for the nation."

Earlier this year, Connecticut became the second state in the nation to end veteran homelessness.

"But what that means is not that we will never see another veteran homeless, as much as we wish that were the case. What it means is that we have built a system in Connecticut whereby any veteran we identify as homeless, we can house appropriately in 90 days," said Lisa Tepper Bates, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.

While Connecticut has "a lot" of transitional housing for homeless veterans, Tepper Bates said, under current regulations it's a "complicated" process to convert that transitional housing into permanent housing.

"One of the provisions is to create that opportunity for some of this long-term transitional housing to be converted to permanent housing that we really need to provide for any veteran exiting homelessness," she said.

The legislation would make changes to allow long-term transitional housing, funded by the VA's Homeless Providers Grant and Per Diem program, to be converted into permanent housing.

It's a small but important part of the bill, Tepper Bates said.

In New London, the Homeless Hospitality Center, through the grant and per diem program, provides housing to veterans on Mountain Avenue for up to two years. The center is working to make the Mountain Avenue residence interim housing rather than two-year transitional housing with the goal of securing permanent housing for the veterans within 90 days.

That's a goal all GPD housing programs — 16 different sites consisting of 165 beds — throughout the state are looking to achieve, John Chiechi, with the state VA, told The Day in February.

Cosgrove Commons, which is operated by the nonprofit Chrysalis Center Inc., provides its residents with permanent housing in addition to case management and employment services. There's also "a lot of referral and linkage" to other programs, Sharon Castelli, CEO of Chrysalis Center, said.

The Commons was established two years ago this fall, and Marine Corps veteran Gregory Bethea, 63, has lived there since "day one." Bethea was in the Marines from 1969 through 1970.

All of the units are one-bedrooms, and Bethea gave attendees of the news conference a tour of his unit on Monday. He said he enjoys cooking spaghetti and roasts, and often spends time with the other residents. On Sunday, he and eight other residents went fishing nearby.

His grandchildren live just down the street, and come by "all the time."

"They're always checking on me," Bethea said.

The Veterans First Act is expected to be taken up by the full Senate in June, and Blumenthal is challenging the full Congress to pass it by July 4.

j.bergman@theday.com

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