BY NICOLE ANTONUCCI
A five-year plan to provide a community for homeless veterans at Fort Monmouth is coming to fruition with the recent designation of a 10-acre parcel on Eatontown’s area of the fort.
Members of the Fort Monmouth Economic Revitalization Authority (FMERA) approved a resolution to offer the parcel, known as Parcel VI, for purchase at the May 15 board meeting with the specific purpose of establishing a community specifically for at-risk veterans.
“We think that this can be a terrific project that can offer many veterans who may have had some hard luck — a good way to become part of the community, to grow and prosper,” Bruce Steadman, executive director of FMERA, said following the meeting.
According to the Fort Monmouth Reuse Plan, the property is currently slated as open space, and use as a veterans’ community would require a plan amendment.
Steadman said that FMERA staff has been looking at various parcels on Fort Monmouth for the past two years in search of a convenient location for the planned use.
“There have been discussions with Tinton Falls and Oceanport about possible sites and even other sites in Eatontown … this is probably the best parcel size that is not bounded by other homes or other significant aspects of the community,” he said. “We felt that there would be some insulation and some recreational areas for the veterans to use so that they would feel comfortable. It’s consistent with projects that we have seen out of the state.”
The vacant parcel, previously used recreational activities, is located along Alexander Avenue on the Main Post in Eatontown and is bound by the Monmouth County motor pool, the former Lane Hall and a small lake.
Monmouth County Freeholder Lillian Burry, a member of FMERA and chairwoman of the Veterans Advisory Committee, said that the project has been in the planning stages for at least five years.
“This is a giant step forward, and we are on the go now,” Burry said.
“There is nothing in Monmouth County like this, and it’s very much needed.”
According to FMERA, there are as many as 10,000 to 20,000 homeless veterans living in New Jersey, and Burry said more than 500 live in Monmouth County.
According to the resolution, each offer to purchase the property will be evaluated according to specific criteria, including the type, size, configuration and materials of the proposed buildings; the size, floor plan and amenities associated with individual living units; and the proposed management plan for the community, including the extent to which the veterans themselves would have input or responsibility.
Other criteria includes the extent to which individual resident veterans may pay rent or own equity in the project, the project’s potential for helping to address the fort’s affordable housing and homeless assistance obligations, and other guidelines.
Soldier On, a Massachusetts based nonprofit, has expressed interest in financing and constructing such a project on the fort, Burry said.
In August 2012, Soldier On announced that a $1 million federal grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Services for Veterans’ Families (SSVF) grant program would be used to provide services for underserved veterans in Monmouth County.
Jack Downing, CEO of Soldier On, said the program would be implemented in two phases: installing case managers to gather information about veterans’ needs; and building transitional, low-income housing for homeless veterans at Fort Monmouth.
At the time, Downing said discussions were ongoing with FMERA, and the nonprofit was also working with AcuteCare Health System, a Lakewood-based health services company that will occupy the former Patterson Army Health Clinic building on the fort grounds in Oceanport.
Currently, Soldier On operates in two locations: a 165-bed shelter in two buildings leased from the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, Mass., and the Berkshire Veterans Residence in Pittsfield, Mass., a transitional living facility
Burry confirmed that Soldier On is still an interested party, but said FMERA must consider all proposals.
No matter who occupies the site, Burry is confident that the veterans community would be a beneficial addition to the fort.
“It’s a good location, and it’s also close to the county’s properties that we have there. It’s easily accessible since it’s near the main road. You can walk to the medical center from the site,” she said.
“I am sure that it will grow beyond the homeless and will address the needs of the veterans in general. I am looking forward to the next step, and that is for the [request for proposals] to get out there, get the proper responses and to digging the first hole.”