Groups receive vets’ aid grants of $300K

WHEELING – Two local organizations will receive a total of more than $300,000 in federal funding to help homeless veterans in the Northern Panhandle, area lawmakers announced this week.

Helping Heroes, headquartered in Moundsville, will receive $188,688, while the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless is set to get $133,012 through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin and Rep. Nick Rahall, all D-W.Va., announced the grants, which are part of $2.6 million in funding awarded to similar programs throughout West Virginia.

Jeremy Harrison, an Iraq war veteran who founded Helping Heroes along with his wife, Susan, said demand for services has exceeded expectations. In their grant application, they projected to serve 25 to 31 veterans this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. Harrison said they’ve already enrolled 34 veterans and are in the process of signing up more.

According to the VA, between 130,000 and 200,000 American veterans have no place to stay on any given night, and account for about 23 percent of the nation’s homeless population. There are a number of reasons for that, according to the VA, including post-traumatic stress disorder, physical injury and marital problems.

“Nobody comes home from war the same. Everybody is significantly impacted one way or the other, and you’ll never get back to the person you once were. Time doesn’t always heal,” Harrison said. “The issues are real, the problems are real, and without getting the help they need, situations are usually going to get worse.”

To illustrate the often jarring transition war veterans face upon returning home, Harrison recalled one man the organization served who left behind a $65,000-a-year job to serve in Iraq. But he was hurt during his time there, and could no longer do the work.

Harrison said the grant will help pay the salaries for three full-time and one part-time staff member in addition to providing direct financial assistance to clients. Helping Heroes is also in the process of outfitting three transitional apartments at the organization’s Jefferson Avenue location.

Having rental units under the organization’s control will be particularly helpful, as the natural gas industry continues to transform the local rental housing market. Empty apartments are scarce to begin with, Harrison said, and the influx of well-paid oil and gas workers has led to inflated rent prices for those that are available, with units that went for $300 to $400 per month just a couple years now going for $800 or $1,000.

“Somebody who’s just getting off the street is going to find it hard to maintain that kind of rent, with utilities on top of that. It’s made it really difficult for us, but we’ve been fortunate,” Harrison said, adding the organization generally has been able to get veterans into an apartment within a week after their first contact.

In addition to providing assistance to homeless and near-homeless veterans, the organization also is working to provide more clinical services.

“You may get somebody housed, but if they have severe mental health issues and you don’t get that problem addressed, they may not be able to maintain that housing,” Harrison said.

Any veteran in need of assistance can call Helping Heroes at (304) 810-4291 or the Greater Wheeling Coalition for the Homeless at (304) 232-6105. Both organizations serve clients in Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties.