MERCHANTVILLE — Two and a half months ago, Jacqueline Vasquez didn’t have a place she could truly call her own.
Recently, however, the 52-year-old United States Air Force veteran celebrated Veterans Day here in her own apartment, thanks to the Catholic Charities, Camden Diocese’s Ready Vet Go program.
In May 2013, Vasquez was living in an apartment near Fort Dix, and working at a law firm as a production room manager, when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
She began taking her mother, who lives in Camden, to her chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but after the juggling of these new responsibilities with her job became too much, Vasquez stopped working at the law firm, and financially couldn’t keep her apartment.
For a year, she stayed with friends in Camden, and last July, when she developed a cold, went to a local VA clinic for treatment. After a series of questions revealed Vasquez’ living situation, the VA clinic referred her to Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Camden, and especially its Ready Vet Go program.
“Within two weeks, the ball was rolling,” she said. “They have been great to me.”
On Sept. 1, Vasquez and her 24-year old son, Jesse, moved into their own apartment in Merchantville, with assistance from Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden’s Ready Vet Go Program, which addresses the needs of low-income veterans in the six counties of the diocese.
For the past 37 months, the Ready Vet Go program, funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, has provided temporary financial assistance to veterans and their families, in the form of rental and utility payments; security and utility deposits; moving costs; and public transportation expenses.
A total of $1.2 million has been granted to Ready Vet Go by the Department of Veteran Affairs to help vets for 12 months. From Oct. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30 of this year, almost $550,000 was given to 358 veterans and their families for temporary financial assistance.
Over the past three years and one month of its existence, Ready Vet Go has provided short-term assistance to over 800 veterans and their families, to get them out of homelessness, said Mark Taylor, director of Veterans Affairs for Catholic Charities.
Earlier this year, the state of New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs estimated that 7,000-8,000 veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces are among the state’s homeless population. Poverty, lack of support and isolation after their military discharge, rent burdens, and disability are some of the factors that can cause homelessness for men and women who have served our country.
Ready Vet Go “pushes these veterans to self-sufficiency,” said Taylor.
“We connect them with as many programs as possible, so they don’t fall back into their old habits that caused them to be homeless,” he said.
Every day, the Ready Vet Go Staff (four senior case managers, four outreach workers, and one vet resource manager) help veterans like Vasquez.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Vasquez was 13 when she came to New York City with her mother. Nine years later, she enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to basic training in San Antonio, Texas.
There she began work as a supply specialist and met her husband.
Eventually, she and her husband moved closer to his home in New York City, and Vasquez spent four years at McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County as an equipment custodian in communications security and weapons, “handling everything from a pencil, to a chair, to weapons, and tracking black boxes in aircraft carriers,” she said.
Later, she went overseas, spending 90 days in Cairo during the Somali conflict, helping to procure repair kits and supplies for aircraft.
She and her husband had a son, Joshua (now 26, and in active duty for the Air Force, stationed in Florida), and in the early 1990s had another son, Jesse.
Working stateside during Jesse’s birth, Vasquez was assigned to South Korea for a 12-month tour of duty. Facing a hard decision to leave her husband and two young sons, complicated by the fact that her newborn just had surgery for a stomach blockage, Vasquez left the Air Force in 1994 after 10 years of active duty.
Upon entering civilian life, she “had a hard time adjusting.” I wasn’t equipped to work in the civilian world,” she said.
For the past 20 years, Vasquez has bounced around in many different occupations, trying to make ends meet: as a bilingual representative for a company’s call center; selling real estate; and as a marketing representative.
Complicating things a bit, was the diagnosis, while in technical school in Colorado shortly after basic training, of an eye infection, that caused her to lose her peripheral vision in her left eye.
In 2007, a heart attack put her in the hospital, and out of work for a year.
Her next job, part-time, had her inspecting foreclosed property, and living in an apartment near Princeton. Shortly thereafter, she got another part-time job, at a law firm. In 2011, she took over a fellow Air Force veteran’s full-time position at the law firm, as production room manager.
Today, her mother is cancer-free, and, divorced from her husband, Vasquez and her son, Jesse, who attends part-time college and works part-time, have their own place in Merchantville, “a safe community,” she said.
The Ready Vet Go Program has “been great to me,” she said, adding that in addition to the financial assistance, she and her son have two twin beds, and clothes from Catholic Charities.
“Little by little, we’ll be able to get back on our feet,” she said.
For more information on Catholic Charities’ Ready Vet Go program, contact Mark Taylor at 856-583-4112, or email@example.com