Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz pledges to end veteran homelessness in city this year



Last modified: Thursday, July 02, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — When First Lady Michelle Obama issued a challenge last year to the country’s mayors to end homelessness among veterans, Northampton Mayor David J. Narkewicz didn’t immediately jump on board.

Instead, he said he wanted to be certain Northampton could achieve that goal in 2015, through its local veterans support network, before signing any pledge.

He made that commitment Wednesday at the VA medical center in Leeds before a crowd of about 75 veterans and employees. “Our veterans don’t just deserve a shallow pledge but a firm commitment,” Narkewicz said, a year after Obama’s call to action.

The mayor said that after examining social services supports in place for homeless veterans, he believes the city’s resources have reached a point where no veteran should have to sleep on the streets. And as of January of this year, none were, according to the most recent survey of the city’s homeless veterans.

“Finding a veteran on the street is a hard thing to do because the outreach is there,” said James Seney, program director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans.

By signing on to the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, Northampton joins a growing list of cities that are marshaling local, state, federal and nonprofit resources to end homelessness among American veterans. The idea is that if a veteran becomes homeless or is at risk of becoming homeless, a city can react quickly to find services and housing. Ideally, that effort ends with permanent housing.

In announcing the national initiative last year, Michelle Obama noted that while only 0.3 percent of the country’s veteran population was homeless, that accounted for approximately 58,000 veterans.

“Even one homeless veteran is a shame,” Obama said. “And the fact that we have 58,000 is a moral outrage. We should all be horrified.”

Narkewicz said that for the past decade, Northampton has had the highest number of veterans and dependents per capita in the commonwealth receiving veterans benefits, in large part because of the robust outreach efforts of its veterans services office. He said the city also continues to work in close partnership with veterans service organizations, the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, the nonprofit Soldier On and other local and nonprofit groups.

These organizations identify the most vulnerable veterans, target rapid rehousing interventions and help remove barriers to veterans obtaining permanent housing.

Soldier On is now building 44 permanent housing units for male veterans and 16 transitional units for female veterans and children on the VA campus in Leeds.

On any given night, more than 170 veterans are in transitional housing in Northampton, said John Crane, case manager at Soldier On, who also spoke at the event.

Narkewicz said the city is curating a list of property owners with an interest in providing veterans with housing opportunities, as it continues to work with homeless shelters and human service organizations to identify veterans in need.

“We have methodically leveraged partnerships,” Narkewicz said, adding that the city’s safety net for homeless veterans is strong enough for “even the most challenging cases.”

Among those who have benefited from the support network in Northampton is Malcolm Arder, 42, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the 1990s and was recently homeless in Connecticut. Arder said he found out about Soldier On through a friend and has been staying at the veterans homeless shelter on the VA campus for the past 30 days. He said he is getting help he needs at the hospital with the goal of someday being on his own in permanent housing.

“I understand it’s going to take some time,” Arder said, after watching Narkewicz sign the national pledge.

Arder described the current support services for veterans in Northampton as “tremendous” and said they have afforded him the opportunity to get back out into the community.

“They’re here to help us, man,” he said.

John P. Collins, director of the regional VA system, said ending homelessness among veterans is a top priority for the federal agency and that the local VA will do everything within its “ability, desire and power” to help the city achieve its goal by year’s end.

“I believe we’re going to get there,” Collins said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.


 


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