Nov. 19--Tina Mikes was working for the U.S. Census in 2010 when her job took her to an encampment of homeless people along I-676 in Camden -- and its self-appointed mayor.
The man agreed to introduce census workers to the tent-dwellers there, then produced his own identification: a VA card.
She wondered how a military veteran wound up there, described services available to him, and continued her census duties.
But the encounter stayed with Mikes, a fellow vet who served as a communications specialist in the Army from 2000 through 2003 in South Korea and Germany. "I wondered what happened to him," she said. "I never did find out."
The 34-year-old Maple Shade resident was inspired, in part by that meeting, to start working to help homeless veterans after her graduation in May from Rutgers University in Camden.
She is now one of six New Jersey case managers for Soldier On, a private nonprofit organization that has provided needy vets and their families with referral services and temporary housing assistance since 1994.
"I love my job. I'm doing exactly what I wanted to do," said Mikes, who has two children, an 11-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. "It's gratifying to help veterans.
"Sometimes they feel they haven't been transitioned into civilian life," she said, "that they're left to sink or swim out there."
When problems arise, though, there is help. Needy veterans in eight New Jersey counties are receiving services this fall through $4 million in grants, awarded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The funds have been provided for veteran services in Burlington, Mercer, Ocean, Monmouth, Middlesex, Bergen, Essex, and Hudson Counties.
The money is part of nearly $300 million in federal grants intended to provide housing for about 120,000 homeless and at-risk veterans and their families. Funds have been directed to 319 community agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
"With these grants, we are strengthening our partnership with community nonprofits across the country to provide veterans and their families with hope, a home, and a future," said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki.
"The work . . . has already helped us prevent and end homelessness among tens of thousands of homeless veterans and their families, but as long as a single veteran lives on our streets, we have work to do," Shinseki said.
In addition to New Jersey, Soldier On provides services in Western Pennsylvania, Western Massachusetts, eastern upstate and central New York, and Mississippi.
Not all veterans want to be helped. Some need treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse; others want the freedom of the streets.
When Mikes pointed out the services available to the man at the homeless encampment, "he was not interested," she said. "I was really surprised."
Mikes asked him why he stayed at the camp. "He said he didn't want to live by the rules of the shelters," she said. "He felt more free and didn't mind living in a tent city.
"They had a pretty strong community and supported one another," she said.
The homeless were later evicted from the site, and Mikes does not know where the veteran went.
She graduated from Rutgers with a degree in social work this year and began work at Soldier On in September.
Among the veterans she has worked with recently, one lives in a car and another in a rented storage unit. A third lived in an abandoned house and had to be hospitalized for an illness.
"They're in places where they have no heat, and that makes me want to work harder, to get them somewhere warm and safe," Mikes said. "I will make referrals to different shelters or try to get them temporary rental assistance.
"We try to help people so they don't lose housing, or if they lose it, get them rapid rehousing," she said. "It's temporary. We want them to be accountable."
Soldier On's help came just at the right moment for Army veteran Thomas Spencer, 50; his wife, Gwennan, 46; and their three children.
After being temporarily disabled -- the result of injuries when his car was struck by a drunken driver -- Spencer had trouble paying his rent, and his family was evicted.
Soldier On provided temporary aid that helped them get into another apartment in Maple Shade. "We were going through some hard times," said Spencer, whose health has improved and who works as a trailer mechanic for UPS. "We were displaced for a while" last year.
"They helped me at a time of need," he said. "Soldier On is a great program. It worked well for me and my family."