Five central and Eastern Montana counties, including Yellowstone, have received $365,000 in grants to help prevent homelessness among veterans — and, for the first time, to help veterans' families.
The other counties include Big Horn, Carbon, Stillwater and Sweetgrass.
"This is a huge deal," said Heath Steel, executive vice president of operations for Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, which made the formal application for the grant. "This is beyond big. This money will help serve veterans, and their families, which is unprecedented."
Through the years, there have been numerous programs to help returning veterans, Heath said, but never their families. Now families of veterans can get help with child care, educational training and housing assistance as returning veterans attempt to stabilize themselves in a community. The financial aid will be reserved primarily for low-income veterans.
Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, a spiritual-based ministry of service, has long provided a continuum of care to veterans. To now be able to help family members closes a conspicuous gap in services, Heath said.
Jeff Holsinger, president and CEO of Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, said his organization is proud to provide this critically important service to veterans and their families and looks forward to working with the Veterans Administration and Human Resources Development Council to provide them.
"Volunteers of America will continue to rely on Billings and the surrounding communities to support our efforts in service to these men and women," Holsinger said. "We are grateful for the support and look forward to having a meaningful impact on those who have served our country.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, who visited Montana in July 2011, announced the awards Tuesday. The grants will serve about 75 homeless and at-risk veteran families as part of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. This award will serve veteran families associated with Volunteers of America Northern Rockies, one of 151 community agencies in 49 states and the District of Columbia to receive a grant.
This marks the first time SSVF money has been released in Montana, Heath said. Volunteers of America Northern Rockies applied unsuccessfully for the grant last year but lost out to more populated areas. It reapplied this year with the help of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. The state is home to the second-highest percentage of veterans in the country, second only to Alaska.
“We are committed to ending Veteran homelessness in America,” Shinseki said in making the announcement. “These grants will help VA and community organizations reach out and prevent at-risk veterans from losing their homes.”
Under the SSVF program, the VA is awarding grants to private non-profit organizations and consumer cooperatives that provide services to very low-income veteran families living in, or transitioning to, permanent housing. Those community organizations provide a range of services that promote housing stability among eligible veteran families.
With the grants, providers can help veterans with obtaining VA benefits as well as assistance in getting other public benefits. Community-based groups can offer temporary financial assistance on behalf of veterans for rent payments, utility payments, security deposits and moving costs.
The VA estimates these grants will serve approximately 42,000 homeless and at-risk veteran families nationwide. This is the program’s second year. Last year, the VA provided about $60 million to assist 22,000 veterans and family members.
In 2009, President Barack Obama and Shinseki announced the federal government’s goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. The grants are intended to help achieve that goal, Steel said. Homelessness among veterans has declined 12 percent since January 2010, according to the 2011 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress.
"I feel this is a great thing for the veterans of Montana," Steel said.