New legislation could help homeless veterans

New legislation could help homeless veterans

Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern joins Congressman Steve Israel at the site of a zombie home in Dix Hills. Photo from Amanda Lindner.

One North Shore lawmaker’s proposal to provide housing to homeless veterans is now being used as a model for a federal bill.

U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) introduced the Housing Our Heroes Act this month, which creates a three-year federal pilot program that provides grants to purchase and renovate zombie homes for veterans use. That proposal reflects similar sentiments expressed in legislation Suffolk County Legislator Steve Stern (D-Dix Hills) drafted last year.

The Housing Our Homeless Heroes Act, signed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in December 2014, allows for “zombie homes,” or tax-defaulted properties, in Suffolk County to be distributed to veterans.

“No soldier who has ever worn the uniform of our great nation and gone off to protect the ground we stand on should ever have to come home to sleep on it,” Stern said in a statement.

Israel’s legislation is an expansion on an act from Stern, who serves as chairman of the Veterans and Seniors Committee.

“My legislation will not only put a roof over our heroes’ heads, it will also transform unsightly zombie homes into renovated properties that will revitalize housing markets in many of our Long Island communities,” Israel said in a statement. “Whenever we get the opportunity to eliminate two problems with one sustainable solution, we should act on it.”

Israel’s proposal would make grants available to veteran service organizations, non-governmental organizations and homeless organizations. It is intended not only to house homeless veterans but also eliminate blight from neighborhoods, the lawmaker said.

Stern praised Israel’s legislation for helping to ensure “that our military heroes have a place to call home while turning blighted properties into houses fit for heroes.”

According to Stern, he and Israel always saw his act as a model to use at the federal level.

“I’m proud to say we implemented it at a local level,” Stern said in a phone interview. “What we started here is serving as a national model.”

One of the big differences between Stern and Israel’s acts is the funding.

Stern said at the local level, they are utilizing properties the government already owns because of foreclosure. Israel’s legislation doesn’t need to rely on those types of homes because of the funding they receive from grants, so “there is real opportunity for innovation with the spectrum of properties.”

He also said these two bills will complement each other going forward.

Approximately 50,000 homeless veterans are on the streets of the United States every day, including more than 2,500 in New York, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Blighted properties have been an ongoing issue in Huntington Town.

“Huntington residents have been dealing with the zombie home epidemic in our neighborhoods for far too long,” Huntington Councilwoman Tracey Edwards (D) said in a statement.

Edwards said Israel’s legislation would improve both the lives of veterans and the worth of Huntington resident’s homes.

At a press conference announcing Israel’s proposal on Nov. 9, Gina Raio Bitsimis, a Dix Hills resident and zombie home neighbor, thanked Israel for his commitment to tackle this problem.

“Zombie homes aren’t only eyesores in our neighborhood, they are actively reducing the value of our homes that we have worked so hard to maintain,” Bitsimis said in a statement. “My family and I will welcome these brave men and women into our neighborhood with open arms and look forward to the increase of both our quality of life and the value of our property.”

Huntington Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) previously drafted legislation to crack down on blighted properties, and said in a phone interview that the zombie house in Dix Hills, where the press conference was held was the exact house that inspired her to draft an anti-blight act.

“I saw the condition of the house and how it affected the neighbors,” she said. Her legislation includes a point system that determines if a property should be added to the town blight list and enters a restoration agreement with the town.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also said in 2009 that the homeless veteran population was more than 74,000 in a single night and last year more than one in ten of every homeless adult were a veteran.

At the press conference in Dix Hills, members of veteran organizations from Long Island spoke about the necessity of the bill.

“Placing homeless veterans in these homes will give them the opportunity and foundation they need to become independent successful members of our community,” said Frank Amalfitano, director of United Veterans Beacon House.

Beth Gabellini, regional director of Long Island Supportive Services for Veteran Families echoed the sentiment.

“After fighting for our country, veterans deserve every opportunity possible to help get back on their feet and on track,” she said.

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