BRATTLEBORO -- At a press conference held by Brattleboro Union High School students, a disturbing statistic was read: There were approximately 81 homeless veterans in Vermont in 2011. In 2012, the number went up by another 30.
"Even more unbelievable about these statistics is that our federal government is doing little to nothing about (homeless veterans)," said BUHS's Students Supporting Veterans Co-Chair Kayla Boyd. "1,000 times more money is spent on preventing, maintaining and deporting illegal immigrants than helping homeless veterans."
Students Supporting Veterans is an organization that announced its mission statement, goals and activities at a press conference at BUHS on May 9. Teacher Tim Kipp has led the efforts.
Two staffers from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' camp were at the press conference as well as American Legion State Commander Stanley Garland and the president of the student organization's partner, Home At Last.
Students Supporting Veterans is dedicated to helping homeless veterans by raising awareness as well as money to be used to purchase homes for the veterans to rent and to assist with maintaining the homes.
Home At Last assists homeless veterans by purchasing mobile homes in the area and providing them to veterans at a low cost. The organization has been around for about five years.
"Right now we have five homes," said Home At Last Board President Tom Appel. "Three in Brattleboro, one in Westminster and one in Hinsdale, N.H."
One of Students Supporting Veterans' members, Aimee Johnston, acts as a liaison between the two organizations. She goes to the Home At Last board meetings as a student representative.
She has two relatives who are veterans. Her grandfather was in Vietnam and her older sister did a tour in Afghanistan.
Johnston went over the causes of homelessness among veterans, which include high unemployment rates, foreclosures on homes and more specific issues like little to no support for veterans upon returning home. She also mentioned a shortage of low income and affordable housing.
Some veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, addiction and mental instability, which can affect their ability to hold jobs.
The Education Committee of Students Supporting Veterans is responsible for educating the public. The members hand out pamphlets and show PowerPoint presentations to inform people of what the organization is doing.
The Fundraising Committee has ideas for the future. It includes setting up boxes for donations at local stores and the high school. The committee has already designated a table at the Brattleboro Food Co-op. Its members are planning to hold bake sales and march in the July 4th parade as well as the Strolling of the Heifers.
"So far we've done the Gallery Walk and we were able to raise $167 and some awareness in the local town," said Fundraising Committee Co-Chair Casey Manning. "We want to raise as much money as we can to get (the homeless veterans) into these homes and then once we are able to do that, we'd like to move a little out of our town to other local areas."
The organization's Buildings and Grounds Committee will take care of basic maintenance on the veterans' new homes. Its members will conduct fall and spring clean up.
"Our goal is to make sure the veterans are comfortable in their new home," said Building and Grounds Committee Co-Chair Greg DiSilva.
Garland said it was an honor for him to attend the press conference.
"We are working with Congress to try and get programs in place to try and help homeless veterans," he added.
The homes that the organizations are getting veterans into aren't transitional. The homes are permanent, Garland pointed out.
Philip Fiermonte, outreach director at Sanders' Office, spoke to the students about legislation Sanders has proposed. The senator is a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
The legislation is called the Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2013. The goal is to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015.
"I can't tell you how excited (Sanders) was to hear what you were doing," said Fiermonte. "He was just so heartened to know that students at BUHS chose to work on the issue of homeless veterans."
Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.