Liberty House: Better Futures for Struggling Veterans

In 2019, Catholic Charities NH acquired Manchester-based Liberty House, which provides transitional housing and a wide range of support services for veterans across New Hampshire. A lot has changed since then – a new home, expanded programs and more resources to meet the increasing demand for its services. To learn more, we recently caught up with Jeff Nelson, Liberty House’s executive director.

For those who aren’t familiar with Liberty House, can you briefly explain what you do?

Liberty House provides substance-free transitional housing, a safe and supportive environment, and various forms of assistance to help veterans facing homelessness, substance use and difficult life situations get their lives back on track, regain their independence and build stable futures.

What type of veterans do you serve?

We serve two groups of veterans. First, our sober transitional living program helps homeless veterans, many of whom are in recovery. Most are unemployed and coming to us from treatment programs, the street or correctional facilities. They are struggling financially and often in poor physical and mental health. Most lack an adequate family or personal support structure to help them get out of their dire situations.

We are here to walk alongside them and advocate for them as they move from recovery towards independence – living on their own, gaining meaningful employment and remaining substance-free. Since 2004, we have served more than 370 resident veterans through this transitional living program.

We also regularly work with veterans in the community who may be on more solid footing but still require support around everyday needs. Most are on fixed incomes and also have difficulties getting by financially. We provide them with assistance such as food, clothing, transportation (gas cards, bus passes), camping gear and community referrals.

How do you help your veteran residents move their lives forward? What does “success” look like?

Every veteran is different, but we share the common mission of guiding them on their journey to recovery and personal successes. This could mean getting them to a place where they are able to afford their own apartment or live on their own. It could mean helping them get a job or secure a steady income. For some, it’s learning how to establish a budget and save money for the first time. For others, it’s rebuilding relationships and trust with their families and loved ones that may have been strained due to their substance use.

Sobriety brings a level of clarity that you don’t have when you’re actively using. We help residents gain that clarity by connecting them to important services and resources that improve their mental and physical well-being. It’s incredible when one of our veterans achieves six months of sobriety; it’s a huge milestone for them and their families and a testament to the hard work paying off. Maintaining their sobriety for an extended period of time goes a long way in healing their wounds.

What’s most rewarding about the work?

Regularly seeing the bright-eyed, clearer-thinking veterans who are putting the pieces of their lives back together after so much hurt and pain. These are the same individuals who came into our doors unshaved, clothes dirty, eyes down, ashamed, and unsure of themselves. Seeing them standing up straight, hopeful and confident is amazing. It’s like seeing a whole different person. They are living versus existing.

Witnessing that transformation – and their series of little successes leading to a much bigger success at the end of the day – is very rewarding.

How is Liberty House different from related service providers?

Liberty House is one of the only sober residential programs for veterans in New Hampshire. We accept no state or federal funding for our operational expenses. This allows us to maintain our zero-tolerance behavioral standards for residents, who are required to remain sober throughout their time with us.

One of the program’s key to success for veterans is your Four-Step Model. Can you talk about that?

Moving from recovery to independence doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, patience, coordination and a lot of hard work. It must be done diligently and one step at a time. To that point, we developed a Four-Step model to support them along the way.

  • Step 1 is focused on recovery. A master’s level licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC) assesses our new residents and meets with them to understand their goals and expectations for moving forward. From there, we create an action plan to help guide them through the remaining three steps and recovery process.
  • Step 2, which often coincides with Step 1, hones in on the veterans’ mental and physical wellness, making sure they have proper access to a primary care physician, health insurance, mental health providers and other appropriate services. We also help secure essential documents – driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, etc. – which the veterans may not have had in their possession before coming to us.
  • Step 3 is about gaining meaningful employment. Here, residents may pursue education or a certification to help increase their marketability. The end goal is to help them search for and secure meaningful employment. Once they begin working, we take 50% of their net income and put it in a savings account for them, so they have a financial nest egg when they ultimately transition to independence.
  • Step 4 focuses on their ultimate goal – a successful transition to independence. Residents complete goals such as earning their driving privileges back (after a long-term license suspension), completing a certification course or resolving some health concerns. We also help them secure permanent housing and transition to independence.

While we put this plan into place for them, we recognize we can’t do all of the work. There must be accountability and willingness among the veterans. For most residents, the expectation is that they’ll be able to complete these four steps anywhere between 90 days and one year – it can vary based on the individual and their circumstances.

How has the Catholic Charities acquisition allowed you to better serve the needs of local veterans?

The past year and a half has been a whirlwind – not only with the pandemic but also how we’ve been able to scale up and further develop our programs in such a short time window.

Thanks to Catholic Charities NH, we had the opportunity to move into a 16,000-square-foot home in Manchester that more than doubled our residential capacity and then renovate it to meet the needs of our program.

Through the support of Catholic Charities, we’re in a great position to be able to serve veterans in new ways and make a lasting difference in so many more lives.

Why is the support you provide so important?

Our veterans have stepped up in so many ways, putting their lives on the line for us and our way of life. For many, the work they put in through service – whether combat or active duty – was their purpose in life and they made many hard sacrifices. At the same time, it came at a cost, whether it’s a traumatic brain injury, moral injury, post-traumatic stress or substance use (or a combination of those). Many are suffering and transitioning to civilian life can be incredibly challenging for them. That’s where we can come in.

Every veteran is different, but no matter what they are facing, each has a heart of gold and determination to find a better place in life. We are fortunate to have the dedicated staff, resources and vision to help these veterans heal and find a new purpose. It can be hard to truly understand what they’ve gone through, but so many are hurting and deserve our support.

What is one thing about Liberty House someone may not know?

Many people may think we are a shelter, when in reality, we are far from that. We are a transitional house with a comprehensive program wrapped around it that involves a great deal of work and commitment from our residents to move their lives forward. Residents don’t stay with us just one night. Most of the time, it takes seven or eight months. Our veterans really invest in the process of recovery and our services. We are a strong community where everyone treats each other like family and is committed to seeing everyone succeed.

How is donor support so critical?

Without the support we receive from our incredible donors, we wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do, nor would many of our veterans have access to the resources they need. We know how important it is to keep the door open and continue to grow. We can’t do that without our supporters. It’s great to see a community so diverse come together and demonstrate that our veterans need help. There’s nothing more valuable than stepping up and helping others.

Has there been an increase in the demand for your services because of the pandemic?

Yes, we have certainly seen the adverse impact of the pandemic among our veteran community. The past year was even more difficult for veterans who were already struggling. Many who were on stable ground lost their jobs, fell on tough times financially and experienced other forms of significant hardship. For others, the isolation, trauma and uncertainty over the future negatively impacted their mental and physical well-being, and often led to substance use.

Homelessness among veterans also increased nationally in 2020. While veterans make up approximately six percent of the US population, they encompass eight percent of the nation’s overall homeless population. New Hampshire is certainly not immune to this troubling trend.

In a way, our expansion came at the right time, as the past year clearly demonstrated the need for highly focused services like ours within the veteran community. Before, we’ve had to turn away veterans in need of our services because of capacity issues. While we’re in a much better place now, we still need to ensure we have the right resources in place to best meet the continual demand for our services.

What’s your vision for the next few years?

We’re looking forward to bringing meaningful change for even more local veterans. Beyond the expanded residential capacity of our building and food and clothing pantry for community veterans, we are very excited about our 2,000-square-foot recreational center. We envision this becoming a more central hub for much-needed veteran resources across New Hampshire, whether it’s through hosting recovery meetings, community gatherings, job skills seminars, educational workshops and seminars, art therapy, or simply becoming a place where veterans can come together and support each other.

We’re fortunate that many of our former residents have gone on to do incredible things and established great careers. Our current residents would have a lot to benefit from being around them and this is the perfect forum for developing those types of positive relationships. It’s one of the many ways we’re connecting veterans to what they need to move forward in life.

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