There are plastic bags of bagels on the counter, and it is very quiet at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Rooms off the long tan hallway house dozens of veterans who had been carouseling from house to house, sleeping on couches.
"Long Island's homeless veterans are hidden," said Greg Curran, lead social worker for the Homeless Program at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center. "You can't go to Grand Central or Penn Station and see them all there with their belongings at night standing over a steam grate."
Veterans currently make up 14 percent of the homeless population nationwide, a sobering figure on Veterans Day, 2012, according to a report by the Associated Press. 75,609 veterans were homeless in 2009 when President Barack Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki began a commitment to end veteran homelessness by 2015.
A report from the VA issued in the coming weeks is expected to show that number dropping below 60,000.
The VA implemented a six-pillar approach to combat homelessness: Community Partnerships, Income/Employment/Benefits, Housing/Supportive Services, Outreach/Education, Prevention, and Treatment.
Though the contributing factors of homelessness – untreated mental illness and substance abuse – are universal, veterans living in Long Island face particular challenges. The high cost of living is by far the number-one obstacle.
"Long Island is an extremely difficult place to afford. I think the fair market value for a one bedroom apartment is around $1,300 or $1,400," said Curran. "Affordable housing is in very short supply."
"We're getting people whose landlords lost their home, and now they're being evicted. The landlord didn't return their security deposit so it becomes a ripple effect and takes a real good assessment to come up with a plan that's going to address everything."
The VA's HUD-VASH program has been effective in combating the housing problem. Started in 2008, the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program combines Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"On any given night we have 400 veterans and dependent family members sleeping in beds that are part of VA funded programs," Curran said. "We work with community partners to move them from emergency to transitional to permanent housing as quickly as we can."
Curran said the most effective way to reach the homeless veteran population on Long Island is through institutional outreach, going through non profits, faith-based organizations, and local government.
Preventing homelessness among at-risk populations is immensely important, said Curran. One of the newest VA programs addressing at-risk population is Veterans Justice Outreach, designed to avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration among Veterans by ensuring that eligible justice-involved Veterans have timely access to VHA services.
"They're given an opportunity to stick with VA services as an alternative to being incarcerated," Curran said. "It's been proven that treatment is more effective than incarceration when you're dealing with people who have substance abuse or mental health issues."
A dedicated outreach team goes across Long Island to educate and enroll veterans several times a week, doing upwards of 80 events a year, said Curran.
"For any veteran who finds themselves displaced now or any other time," he said, "contact your local VA because there's a wealth of resources there for you."