Author of historic homeless veterans law thanks Freeholder BurrySmith helps break ground for new homes for veterans at risk of homelessness
Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who worked with local officials for a decade to bring a modern housing project and services to homeless veterans, was one of the guest speakers today at a groundbreaking for the innovative housing complex in Monmouth County.
Smith said Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry was “the quarterback” in the effort to see the project through to fruition.
“I have been proud to do my part in finding a Monmouth County home for Soldier On, and I promise you I will continue to be an active supporter as it moves from design through construction to the day that it opens its doors and welcomes its very first veteran home,” Burry said.
Said Smith, “I am especially grateful to Freeholder Lillian Burry for her extraordinary dream of a creating a Monmouth County homeless veterans housing initiative, and for her tenacity and skill in making it happen. For nearly a decade, Lillian has been the quarterback in the push to meet the compelling housing and service needs of homeless veterans—and there have been many setbacks along the way, including an inability to secure space at Fort Monmouth.”
“According to the VA, in 2001 there were 294,840 homeless veterans on any given night,” said Smith, whose landmark 2001 law for homeless veterans first authorized funding for the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development-Veteran Affairs Supported Housing (HUD-VASH) program. “Shocked and deeply concerned, I chaired a series of congressional hearings on how to help homeless vets, and wrote the historic Homeless Veterans Comprehensive Assistance Act of 2001, (Public Law 107-95). Almost 20 years later, that number has dropped to 37,085. Progress, but still far too many.
Among its many provisions, Smith’s law authorized, for the first time, the HUD-VASH program, which will be tapped as a major source of future rental assistance funding for veterans who will be living at the housing complex.
The Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Village in Tinton Falls will be run by the non-profit organization Soldier On, and will consist of a four-story building with apartments that will be available to veterans at a range of low and moderate income levels.
About 50 people attended the groundbreaking ceremony held at Monmouth County Liberty Park just north of the 12-acre project site located on Essex Road in Tinton Falls Borough. About $8 million in federal funding will help pay for construction. The remaining costs will be financed by the developer and the NJ Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.
“Today construction begins on Soldier On and WinnDevelopment’s $23 million, 70 one-bedroom housing units,” Smith said. “Thank you Tinton Falls for welcoming the project.”
Smith praised Soldier On’s leaders, President Jack Downing and CEO Bruce Buckley, for their tireless efforts to help vets who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
“Soldier On—thanks Jack Downing and Bruce Buckley—has created world-class home ownership opportunities coupled with vital services for homeless veterans, and the impact has been enormous and life changing,” Smith said. “For the first time in years—even decades—many veterans will finally have a decent place to live and hope and prosper.”
Smith, who served as the two-time Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and has authored 14 laws to help veterans, has worked closely with the Freeholders and Soldier On since 2011 to bring veteran services, including the critical housing project, to New Jersey. Smith supported funds through the Veteran Administration’s (VA) Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) grant program. Over the past eight years, Soldier On has received $31 million from the VA’s SSVF grants program for New Jersey, serving thousands of veterans by not only helping provide a roof over their heads and food to eat, but also critical tools to break the cycle of homelessness, such as job training, substance abuse services and mental health counseling.
Smith helped Solider On first come to New Jersey in 2011, assisting the Massachusetts-based organization to obtain a $1 million VA SSVF grant in 2012 to help veterans in his district in Monmouth, Ocean and Burlington counties, plus Middlesex and parts of Mercer. That work later expanding to serve nine counties, adding all of Mercer, Somerset, Bergen, Hudson and Essex. Today it also manages similar veteran housing operations in New York and Massachusetts, providing 177 homes, with another 152 in various stages of development.
Smith wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in February 2012 about the grants and housing project seeking VA support. Smith announced the first grants in in 2012 and 2013 and fought for funding in 2015. Smith also sent letters of support for Soldier On to Gov. Christie and Lt. Gov. Oliver and the NJ Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency in 2017. In 2020, he led a bipartisan letter supporting $47 million for the HUD-VASH program.
“This has not been my effort alone. Like most worthwhile undertakings, it has had strong hands and hearts moving it forward,” Burry said, who thanked everyone who contributed at the state, county and local levels of government, plus private citizens and Soldier On. She said of Smith’s efforts: “He has been a dedicated supporter throughout this process, and his work in Washington has been invaluable.”