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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Veterans: No changes made by agency since complaints

NASHUA – Veterans say there’s no difference in how they’re being treated by an agency that runs a housing program for honorably discharged homeless veterans since they aired their concerns publicly.

A half dozen veterans who live in an apartment run through the agency, or who used to live in housing the agency provided, contacted The Telegraph recently to vent their concerns, hoping that by airing their complaints, things would change for themselves and other veterans.

Since the story appeared last Sunday, several more veterans contacted the newspaper, echoing concerns raised in the article.

However, when contacted Friday, several of the veterans said it has been business as usual at Buckingham Place and the Dalianis House, and from staff members of Harbor Homes, which runs the Veterans FIRST transitional housing program.

“So far, I can’t see anything that changed,” said one of the veterans, Mike Zunino. “It doesn’t really help us have a sense of dignity when we’re treated like we’re dangerous people who have to be kept under thumb.”

Another veteran, Brian Bluestein, a former resident of Buckingham Place, has sued Harbor Homes and Peter Kelleher, its president and chief executive officer, in Hillsborough County Superior Court.

In court papers dated Jan. 13, Bluestein alleges he was falsely accused of threatening a staff member and that the agency tampered with written statements regarding the incident. In his lawsuit, Bluestein is asking the court to award him unspecified monetary damages.

A search of court records showed that as of Jan. 20, Harbor Homes hadn’t formally responded to the complaint.

Among other concerns, veterans said Harbor Homes treated all homeless veterans as if they were mentally ill or drug addicts, including many who became homeless only because of unemployment and foreclosures.

Veterans also said they had to undergo frequent drug tests and follow other stringent rules that made them feel like “detainees,” and not U.S. veterans struggling because of economic conditions.

Veterans also said Harbor Homes staff have threatened to retaliate against veterans who complain.

Harbor Homes officials have denied the complaints, saying the agency is bound by strict U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs guidelines and other regulations in how it runs the Veterans FIRST program.

On Jan. 19, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the award of $5.5 million in grants to help homeless programs in New Hampshire. A quarter of the money, or about $1.4 million, went to programs managed by Harbor Homes, said Cynthia Andreola, the agency’s community liaison manager.

The HUD award didn’t specify how much went to Harbor Homes, or specifically to which programs. HUD noted in a press release that more than $1.6 million went to programs in Nashua/Hillsborough County. Other agencies based here, including Marguerite’s Place, were among the grant recipients.

Homeless assistance grants are intended to reduce long-term or chronic homelessness in America, according to HUD.

One of the veterans’ frequent complaints, which Harbor Homes officials denied, is that the agency seems more concerned with obtaining grant money than with helping veterans find meaningful jobs or permanent housing.

Bluestein described Harbor Homes as “pimps” who were prostituting homeless veterans to obtain grant money.

Patrick Meighan can be reached at 594-6518 or pmeighan@nashuatelegraph.com.