By hiking the Appalachian Trail, Jarad Greeley of Jay and Marshall Berry of New Hampshire are extending a hand to help homeless veterans. It’s what needs to be done.

Greeley and Berry are Army buddies, home now after four years in the service, including 15 months in Iraq. They’re hiking the AT to honor, thank and advocate for homeless vets, which a recent accounting says are almost one-quarter of the U.S. homeless population.

At least that is what’s known. True numbers are likely much higher, as many veterans suffering from homelessness have yet to, or will not, come forward for help. “They’re not going to ask for it,” says Rick Nugent, an outreach worker with the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Project, a program of the Training Resource Center in Lewiston.

It’s Nugent’s job, among other things, to identify homeless veterans and help them into the assistance programs. This is the hardest part, as many homeless veterans – for their own reasons – may prefer to remain invisible than to rise and be counted.

The best estimates for Maine are between 1,000 and 2,000 homeless veterans, a projection based on the smaller amount that’s known. New England’s homeless veteran population is thought to be 7,300, based upon a compilation of studies and surveys.

One is too many. Crucial services, such as those at the Training Resource Center and several other organizations, do exist. There are programs for housing assistance, care for physical and mental health, job training and employment counseling, ready and willing.

But it takes finding those who served, and serving them.

Identifying homeless veterans depends on agencies and self-reporting, which only scratches the surface of the problem. Nugent and his colleagues across the state are mining those sources now to locate veterans eligible for the reintegration project.

Helping homeless veterans, as advocates have found, means holding out your hand. Just asking, “Are you a veteran?,” can open up so many doors, Nugent says.

Only recently has the problem of homeless veterans drawn attention, largely from the release last November of a study by the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, the source of the startling one-in-four figure that drew Greeley and Berry’s attention. They are doing the hardest job; reaching out a helping hand.

“This (trek) is our wayto thank them for what they have done and help them that they are in need,” Greeley said. Their march begins March 8, and they hope to complete the Maine to Georgia route in four months.

We hope their effort has an impact that lasts much longer.

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