Mercer County has reached its goal to house every homeless veteran seeking help by the end of the year, becoming the latest community to answer the nationwide challenge issued by first lady Michelle Obama.
Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes announced the milestone Wednesday and said the county is the first in New Jersey to do so.
“The challenge was to put a fire under this thing and that’s exactly what we did,” he said.
Hughes and Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson officially accepted Obama’s challenge in November, but officials first began tackling the issue in January through a group effort with the Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness, veteran groups and nonprofit homeless agencies.
Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson officially accepted first lady Michelle Obama’s Mayors Challenge to End Veterans Homelessness
There were 79 homeless veterans in the county when the initiative began.
The partners came up with a methodology to identify all veterans by name and created a shared list to make sure that no one fell through the cracks. Vets were then screened, prioritized and linked to the housing and supportive services they needed.
Of the 79 veterans, there are only two who are not in permanent housing. Housing is available to them, but they have declined for undisclosed reasons, county spokeswoman Julie Willmot said.
That means the county and city have achieved what is called “functional zero” and are committed to ensuring that homelessness among veterans is brief, rare and non-recurring.
“Somebody that is not homeless today might be homeless tomorrow,” Hughes said. “If they’re a veteran, we want to keep them as a high-priority target and make sure that we don’t just walk away from the essential and critical goal that the first lady set out.”
He said the county has long used a “housing first” strategy, which prioritizes getting people into permanent housing and then surrounding them with the services they need such as substance abuse or mental health counseling.
“We think that housing is the key element to really addressing this problem and making sure that people have a road to a better future,” Hughes said.
Housing resources include public housing authorities, senior housing, Section 8 Housing and other county and city resources.
Hughes said the Coordinated Entry and Assessment Services, the one-stop center that opened on Perry Street this April to focus on the chronically homeless, has been critical in helping the partners reach their goal.
“You have a group of people who work on homelessness issues, on housing issues, on making sure those wraparound services exist,” he said.