House speaker praises veterans center

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photo State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell and House Speaker Robert DeLeo chat with Alice Zujewski of Haverhill, who told them her husband, John, an Air Force veteran, is in need of transportation to his many medical appointments.

HAVERHILL — House Speaker Robert DeLeo visited Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill on Thursday, where he praised the organization for its efforts to find housing for homeless veterans and provide them with a host of other services.

He called the center, which is housed in the former St Rita's Church on Reed Street, "one of the best" veterans facilities and organizations he's seen in the state.

There are a total of 14 veterans outreach programs in Massachusetts, officials said.

DeLeo, a Winthrop Democrat, spoke to a small crowd that included local veterans and veterans services agents, Mayor James Fiorentini, VNOC staff and members of the Merrimack Valley legislative delegation. DeLeo said he was impressed with the agency's "wrap-around" services, meaning its comprehensive and holistic approach to meeting the various needs of veterans.

Services provided by the agency include advocacy, referrals, education and vocational support, and food and housing assistance.

"We look a Veterans Northeast Outreach as a role model," DeLeo said.

In this year's proposed state budget, state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, with the support of the region's delegation, successfully secured an amendment for an additional $300,000 for VNOC, above their general funding.

Randy Carter, program manager for VNOC, said the additional funding will go to help veterans who may not qualify for VNOC's programs, but are still considered in need, with assistance such as paying their overdue utility bills or back rent, or providing them with job certification training.

"We can use this money to provide many forms of assistance to those veterans," he said.

Carter said he was excited to have DeLeo visit his center.

"To take time out from his busy schedule to recognize the work of our 74 employees and our team of volunteers, is tremendous," he said. 

Campbell said the FY20 budget is currently being negotiated in conference committee with the House allocating $5.8 million for veteran outreach centers across the state.

Campbell, House chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, thanked DeLeo for his visit to Haverhill. 

"The reason I asked the speaker to come up here is, you all do great work," Campbell said. "You have a comprehensive approach to caring for our veterans, and it's not just about housing, it's the support services you provide, which we know, in the Legislature, works and is absolutely essential to our veterans to get back on their feet and have a meaningful and purposeful life."

Following a talk by Jason Gilbert, interim director of VNOC who outlined the many services his agency provides to veterans, DeLeo told the crowd that Massachusetts is not only No. 1 in the nation when it comes to schools and medical facilities, it is also No. 1 in services to veterans.

"You have my word that each and every session, we're going to do something that's going to improve the lives of veterans here in Massachusetts," he said. 

Following his talk, DeLeo met with a few veterans, including John and Alice Zujewski of Haverhill.

Alice told DeLeo that her husband makes frequent trips to medical appointments as he's being treated for cancer, and that she can only drive him when the weather allows.

"Providing transportation is an issue of concern for us," she told DeLeo, who along with Campbell told the woman they would get some help for her and put her in touch with veterans programs that offer transportation.