HAVERHILL — Congresswoman Lori Trahan stopped by Veterans Northeast Outreach Center on May 24 to learn about the programs it offers and what some of the issues are facing veterans that she can focus on during the budget season.
A member of the House Armed Services Committee, Trahan is visiting agencies such as Veterans Northeast Outreach to learn how they are spending federal grant money and what other programs they need the government to support.
"Whenever we have a tough veterans case, an emergency case, this is who we call and it's because they're equipped to pull in all the services that are required ... the workforce training service, the support and wrap-around services and housing services," she said about Veterans Northeast Outreach.
Trahan took part in a roundtable discussion that included local blinded veteran Gerard Boucher, who told Trahan that any benefits that veterans receive have been earned.
"They served their time," Boucher said to kick off the discussion.
Jason Gilbert, interim executive director of VNOC who took over for former longtime executive director John Ratka, who died in January, introduced his program directors to Trahan. Ron Paradise, who is in charge of the agency's Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program, a competitive grant program of the Department of Labor, told Trahan about the HVRP federal grant of $500,000 per year that helps his agency provide services such as help to reintegrate homeless veterans into meaningful employment and providing them with training for occupations that are in demand in this area.
"This grant also provides us with the finances to add additional employment staff to work with the large number of homeless veterans we are currently working with and for those veterans who will enroll to work with in the future," Paradise said.
Paradise gave Trahan some examples of training programs provided to homeless veterans and those who are at risk of homelessness, such as rigger and hoisting licenses, Serv-Safe training, construction supervisor licenses, OSHA classes and CPR/first aid.
He said his agency supports veterans in training with registration fees, textbooks, stipends, clothing vouchers and more and that the program is tied into housing services to help stabilize their lives.
Trahan, co-chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Labor Council, said she would be looking into securing federal workforce training grants.
"It's a bipartisan issue and whether it's getting people suffering from opioid addiction into workforce training or veterans, those are programs that we know work," she said.
Gilbert told Trahan that transportation is a hindrance to a veteran finding employment and that he's looking closely at a program in the western part of the state that helps to address the problem.
"We're looking to see if we can mimic what they are doing," said Gilbert, who explained that many veterans do not have a driver's license or a car, and must be able to get to their VA appointments, to jobs, to counseling and to other appointments.
Gilbert along with Julian Jaramillo, housing program manager for VNOC, emphasized to Trahan that a lack of affordable housing for veterans is one of the biggest issues their agency deals with.
"This is an issue across the board and I think it's the state and federal government working together to try to figure out how we're going to get more, true affordable housing stock in this state," Trahan said.
Gilbert told Trahan how John Ratka sought out partnerships where VNOC manages available housing units with an eventual opportunity to buy those properties to provide more veterans housing.
"The fact they are selling them and that there's enough demand that they can can actually sell to you and hopefully continue that virtuous cycle by building more ... I'd love to figure out how to do that in all the cities and towns," Trahan said.
During the discussion, which included State Reps. Linda Dean Campbell (D-Methuen) and Lenny Mirra (R-West Newbury), Campbell noted that there continues to be an influx of veterans returning from conflicts in the Middle East and that many are winding up in the arms of agencies such as Veterans Northeast Outreach.
"The war on terror is the longest conflict in our nation's history," she said, adding that to date, there have been 6,974 killed and 52,821 wounded.
Gilbert told Trahan that wounded veterans continue to arrive in this country from overseas duty and that they are in need of wrap-around services, which involve all aspects of support from housing to counseling to transportation to job training and whatever else they need to move forward in life.
He said his agency has 70 full- and part-time employees, the majority of whom are veterans and were originally clients of VNOC.
Trahan briefly touched upon several veterans bills, including the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act (VET PFAS Act) that would give health and disability benefits to veterans and their families exposed to PFAS; the Veterans Access to Child Care Act, which seeks to make permanent the VA’s Child Care Pilot Program and expand it so that veterans who are parents, grandparents and guardians have a convenient, safe, and cost-free option for child care when they have VA medical appointments, and the Whole Veteran Act, which requires the VA to create a plan to deliver holistic Whole Health services to veterans without access to VA facilities.