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City Veterans Services Director Steven J. Connor leads state effort to reduce number of homeless veterans

“We don’t want anyone who swore the oath to protect the county to wind up on the street,” said Steven Connor, Northampton’s veterans services director.

The 25-page plan released by the governor’s office Monday outlines an aim of reducing the number of homeless veterans in Massachusetts by 1,000 by the end of 2015.

Overall, Connor said, the number of homeless veterans in the state has dropped over the last three years or so, partly due to efforts by the Veterans Administration to increase the number of caseworkers available to help them. Since 2009, the ratio of VA caseworkers to veterans has dropped from 1 to 35 to 1 to 25, he said, which allows for more individual attention and more rapid response.

The new plan, which Connor said should begin to be rolled out this spring, seeks to curb homelessness by getting homeless vets into shelters, keeping them sheltered and educating them about benefit programs they are entitled to.

Depending on circumstances, veterans may be eligible for assistance with rent, moving costs, or other aid that can keep them from winding up on the street.

Connor said part of the problem in helping homeless vets is finding and identifying them.

He said based on a one-night survey in January 2012, about 1,270 people were identified as homeless veterans, and about 450 of those were classified as “chronically homeless,” meaning they were without shelter for at least three different periods of time over the course of two years.

Part of the problem in keeping an accurate tally of the number of homeless vets, Connor said, is that many veterans who are homeless don’t seek the aid of shelters and many are on the streets or in the woods of Massachusetts and remain difficult to account for.

Another challenge in aiding veterans who are homeless or are in danger of losing housing they already have is that many aren’t aware of the assistance they are entitled to and others are reluctant to seek assistance at all.

Connor said most of the homeless veteran population are Vietnam-era vets between 55 and 66 years old.

Because many of them were not properly treated for ailments such as post-traumatic stress disorder after their return home, they may have spent decades without treatment or assistance.

“It’s harder to transition someone who has spent decades on the street to a home,” Connor said.

While the older veteran population makes up the largest portion, recently returning vets tend to slip into homelessness at a much faster rate.

Connor noted that it took an average of 18 to 24 years for older veterans to become homeless after their military discharges. But nowadays, for soldiers, sailors, and Marines returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it takes less than two years on average to become homeless, according to Connor.

That’s due, in part, to the rapid turnaround time from active duty to being returned stateside, said Connor.

It used to take days if not weeks for soldiers overseas to be transported home, often by ship where they would be among their comrades and would have time to reflect, transition, and decompress. Now, soldiers, especially members of the National Guard or reservists, can be returned home from a combat zone in as little as two days.

That kind of rapid culture shock can lead to trouble adjusting to civilian life and self-medication for untreated emotional and physical pain, which can cause its own set of social, legal, and economic problems that may lead to homelessness.

Assisting veterans as a group presents some unique challenges, Connor said, mostly due to most military members being reluctant to seek help and being well-suited to adapt to new challenges on their own, at the expense of getting assistance.

“They’re trained not to admit defeat,” Connor said. “Nobody comes into my office until it’s time to make drastic changes.”

Connor said the best first step for veterans seeking help or wanting to learn what their options are is to contact their local VA office or visit www.massvetsadvisor.org for information on what assistance and programs they may qualify for.

Another obstacle in assisting veterans is that many feel their needs pale in comparison to other veterans who may have more acute and obvious problems to overcome.

Connor urged veterans to not let their view of their circumstances prevent them from seeking assistance.

“We don’t rank need,” he said.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@gazettenet.com.

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