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$1.1 million VA grant helping Charlotte region’s struggling vets

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John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
Krystal Ragin, 36, an assistant manager at Family Dollar store, is training to be a manager. Ragin, who served eight years in the Army Reserves, is part of a new program, Community Link, that gets veterans into stable housing while they advance their career.

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A $1.1 million grant from the Veterans Administration is expanding Charlotte’s safety net for struggling veterans to include those in danger of losing their homes.

Charlotte-based Community Link says the new program will save the community tens of thousands of dollars annually by helping vets avoid evictions and foreclosures.

It’s estimated there are as many as 25,000 low-income veterans living in the region, with 3,100 at risk of being homeless, advocates say. Meanwhile, the local population of veterans is expected to grow by 7,000 to 10,000 in the next few years.

Floyd Davis of Community Link says his agency’s new 10-county program will help as many as 250 veteran-headed households a year through a combination of financial, legal and educational assistance. Some of those services will be handled through partner agencies like Goodwill Industries, Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont and Innovative Community Resources.

“These are people who were not professional soldiers. These were in the reserves or the National Guard and they were activated and deployed, some of them multiple times,” Davis said.

“All the structures they created as civilians went to the wayside and they are starting over again. This includes jobs they had as civilians that weren’t waiting for them when they got home. Many even lost their homes because they were putting their lives on the line for us.”

It’s estimated as much as 20 percent of the Charlotte’s homeless population is made up of veterans, many of whom served in the 1990s, according to veteran advocates.

More vets in shelters

As a result, a growing number of programs have focused on former military who have fallen into homelessness.

The Men’s Shelter of Charlotte says 12 percent of the men there are former military. And the Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter for women and children recently launched a program that uses VA money to reserve 26 beds for veterans and their children.

Just under 70 vets are already enrolled in the new Community Link program, among them Charlottean Krystal Ragin, 36, who served eight years in the Army Reserves.

A divorce sent her into a financial tailspin, she said, including time spent with her kids in the Harvest House shelter program in Union County.

“When my husband left, I didn’t have a Plan B as to how to support me and my children. I was blindsided and facing eviction,” said Ragin, who is originally from New York City.

“I had the option of going back to New York to move into my mom’s two-bedroom house, but that wouldn’t be good for my children. I decided to go back into the work force at ground level and I have been busting my behind to work my way up.”

Community Link helped Ragin find an affordable place to live and the agency is currently paying a portion of her $675 monthly rent. It also covered her security deposit.

The help is only short term – about six months – but Ragin says her financial status is already improving as she trains to be a Family Dollar store manager.

“I was two seconds from living in my car and now here I am, with things getting better every day,” Ragin said. “And what I really like is that this does not make me feel like a charity case. These people are helping me because I’m trying to help myself. It’s temporarily, but I’m in a good place now and I’m headed in the right direction.”

Program growing

Among the things the $1.1 million paid for is a staff increase of six people at Community Link, to handle the additional workload. It was originally estimated that the program would help 175 households a year, but Floyd Davis said that has been upped to 250 because many of the veterans appear to need less help than anticipated. He expects most will need no more than three to six months of help.

“Many of them just need a little shot in the arm and a little financial counseling to get back on their feet,” he said. “Being former military, they are driven to achieve.”

The grant from VA is only for 12 months, but it’s anticipated that at least two more years of funding will follow, he added.

Referrals from other charities have been coming in daily, Davis said, including veterans sent by Charlotte Bridge Home, the nonprofit recently established in Charlotte to help guide veterans to needed services. The agency helped about 500 Charlotte-area veterans and their dependents in the past year.

Cindi Basenspiler of Charlotte Bridge Home said the $1.1 million given to Community Link will allow local agencies to reach veterans who might have fallen through cracks.

“Many veterans are not identifying themselves (as veterans) and they are lost in the shuffle of shelters and soup kitchens,” Basenspiler said. “Together, with this additional grant money, we (nonprofits) are able to do outreach to identify them and tell veterans they have a little bit of extra benefits out there.”

She noted there are 55,000 vets in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, many of whom got out of the military 15 to 20 years ago. Experts disagree as to how many homeless vets live in Charlotte, but advocates say the bulk of them are of that same era.

“Taking a more aggressive role with newer veterans will help prevent the same thing from happening to them down the road,” Basenspiler said.

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