AGAWAM – Fifty-one homeless veterans will be able to live and contribute to the community when nonprofit organization Soldier On opens its new $24 million Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community sometime by the end of the summer of 2017.
City officials, local representatives, executives from Solider On, and contributing partners for the project dug their shovels into the earth and broke ground on the project on Oct. 3 during a ceremony at the site of the former Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy at 702 South Westfield St., which would be renovated and expanded for the project.
“In 2011, in Pittsfield, we opened up the Gordon Mansfield Veterans Village with 39 units of permanent housing that provides each veteran with home ownership to method of ownership called a limited equity cooperative,” Bruce Buckley, chief operating officer of Soldier On, said. “The residents pay real estate taxes to the city of Pittsfield, they work in the city of Pittsfield, they volunteer, and shop in the city of Pittsfield.”
He continued, “They remain sober; their health improves; they become financially solvent and they improve as a result of projects like this. I know in Agawam we’re going to offer the same results that we’ve had in the city of Pittsfield.”
Buckley construction has begun work for the project, which would house 51 veterans. Forty-nine individuals would live in the rehabilitation building, and to the rear of the building would be new construction that would house two veterans as well as a kitchen and dining area.
He noted at the end of August the organization opened a 43-unit facility in Chicopee.
“It’s very similar to this, not so much in appearance, but into how it was funded, how it was financed and how we occupy it,” he explained. “Right now we have 27 of the 43 units filled and we’re probably putting four or five more [people] in each week until the end of the month and then that project will be filled.”
Buckley said the services provided at the Chicopee veterans community would also be provided at the Agawam location, including transportation and mental health assistances, job needs, and pharmaceutical requirements.
“We also prepare at least one hot meal daily that’s available to each veteran,” he added.
Buckley said the project is funded with state and federal historic tax credits in partnership with companies such as Citizens Bank and the Stratford Capital Group.
“Permanent housing is a critical piece in the recovery and stabilization of the lives of the formerly homeless veterans,” he said. “The cost of doing a project like this is great. The cost of not doing it would be even greater.”
He added chronic homelessness erodes a person’s self esteem and the project would seek to give homeless veterans an opportunity to regain their positive self worth.
Mayor Richard Cohen said in July 2010 legislation was passed to allow Solider On to utilize the site of the former police academy.
“A light has to go off in somebody’s head that says, ‘Wait, we could do something with this building that would be useful to help, not only the community, but some of the greatest people of our society – our veterans,’” he added. “The idea came from then [state] Rep. Rosemary Sandlin who had the legislation done.”
State Sen. Donald Humason said he’s proud of the region he represents because he believes his constituents care about the well being of veterans.
“We’ve heard of tragedies of veteran homelessness, veteran suicide, veteran unemployment, and these are the sordid sad stories that we don’t talk about, but they need to be addressed,” he noted. “Today, Soldier On has taken that step to address the issue of serving those veterans who have problems after returning.”
State Rep. Nicholas Boldyga said he believes as a society people have to partner together to help veterans.
“It can’t be just up to government to do something for veterans,” he explained. “It’s up to us as regular citizens [to help].”