EMPORIUM — A new program is benefitting veterans in the area by identifying and assisting individuals who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

A grant in the amount of $199,000 was utilized to set up the homelessness prevention program by the Northern Tier Community Action Corporation (NTCAC) to benefit veterans in Cameron, Elk, McKean and Potter counties.

In February, Emporium resident Bob Hostler was appointed to serve as the homeless veterans outreach coordinator working with the program, which Hostler says currently has about 10 veterans currently enrolled.

“I didn’t think this affected us in this area, but it does,” Hostler said. “It’s not the older vets most people think of when they think of homeless veterans, at least not in this area. It’s not the guys living on the streets with serious mental health issues like you see in New York City or DC. Here, it’s younger guys, mostly 21-28 years of age.”

“Every once in awhile we get a tip on someone squatting in an old RV or a blighted house, but we have a lot of couch bouncers or those who are just getting ready to be evicted.” Hostler stated that these veterans are the hardest to find because so many of them do not fit into the traditional definition of homeless. “They’re couch hopping. Staying with one friend till they’ve worn out their welcome and then moving on. They lack direction.”

Many of them also do not see a problem with their lifestyle, or are not willing to come forward. Hostler says he tries to get them motivated to find work after he helps them get into an apartment and signed up with the VA. “People need to feel like they’re productive members of society,” said Hostler.

Hostler stated that he and NTCAC employee Lisa Harris, who heads the program, are working on an outreach effort to bring in partners to help identify individuals in need of services.

“We have gotten some referrals. We’re working with the county assistance offices, family services, Northern Tier, local ministerium associations, VFW and American Legion Clubs, police departments, county veterans affairs offices and housing authorities to get cards out to people who might need a little help,” said Hostler. “We call it a more of a hand up than a hand out.”

Hostler stated that the majority of the individuals they have worked with are from the Bradford area, but they have received referrals for people in smaller communities, like Emporium, Shinglehouse and Austin. McKean County is particularly difficult to canvass as the major population centers are spread far across the map.

A big part of Hostler’s job is going to places where homeless veterans would be likely to congregate. In the wintertime, that is any place they can spend a long period of time indoors staying warm, like at Walmart or fast food restaurants.

Hostler stated he has also been in contact with county sheriff’s departments, as the deputies deal directly with individuals being evicted.

“We just want the agencies to ask these people one question, ‘Are you a veteran?’ because if they are, there is help available,” Hostler said.

One big problem with this area is the lack of homeless shelters. There is one shelter in Bradford that accepts women, but there are no men’s facilities, Hostler said. Any male who is even just temporarily homeless must be given a voucher and sent to stay in a hotel. With this program, some of the burden on those types of programs can be lifted, as qualified veterans will be assisted with a few months of rent payments and a security deposit in a clean, well-maintained apartment that must be inspected by Hostler or other staff prior to a veteran being moved in.

Through this program, the veterans are assisted in finding or maintaining an apartment, signed up for veterans benefits, if eligible, are pointed toward other avenues of assistance, and are encouraged to secure gainful employment in an effort to help them get their lives back on track, which has proven difficult for many who have served in the military, especially those with long deployments. Transitioning back into civilian life can be stressful, even for individuals without PTSD and other issues arising from their service to their country.

Hostler is a veteran himself, having retired from the Army just two years ago. “It really changes their attitudes having a veteran working to help them,” he said. Some of the young men who were opposed to receiving help from the program have come around since Hostler began working on it. “Some of them had attitudes and acted almost ungrateful of the opportunity, but when you talk to them like they’re still in the military, it triggers something and they respond a lot better to that.”

Hostler stated that the work is difficult, and can be grueling at times, but they have helped dozens of veterans since he started working about a month ago. “I enjoy it. I like getting out there and talking to these people.”

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