News

Editorial: With promising housing model, Soldier On must now prove its worth

Monday, December 3, 2012
(Published in print: Tuesday, December 4, 2012)

Northampton will soon get a new kind of homeowner — the homeless veteran kind. And that’s a good thing. That’s why we hope Soldier On’s push to build permanent housing for about 60 homeless veterans at its host campus in Leeds proves to be a worthwhile endeavor, not only for veterans in the Valley but across the country.

It better prove worthy, though, given the amount of taxpayer money that could eventually end up going to similar projects if the new housing model is replicated at many of the 123 campuses under the VA’s control — as Soldier On officials predict may happen.

The VA has already ponied up a majority of the roughly $8 million Soldier On will need for its five-building development on the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System campus in Leeds. Plans call for construction of 44 units in a four-building cluster for male veterans and a 16-unit transitional center for women veterans and their children.

With such funding comes great responsibility for Soldier On. The nearly 20-year-old organization must develop a transparent measuring stick to gauge whether the VA’s investment of millions of dollars nationwide is worth it.

One such clue might be taking shape in Pittsfield, where Soldier On built a similar permanent housing complex more than two years ago. The Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community houses nearly 40 military men in attached units that look more like high-end housing than affordable housing.

Not only do veterans own a share of the complex, they get a voice in how the place is run and, perhaps most importantly to their recovery, they become neighbors within a community of veterans. While there, they are surrounded by the services they need and with access to support from other veterans.

This community and service-under-one-roof aspect of the model is what excites veterans agents like Steve Connor in Northampton, who has watched far too many veterans work through various homeless veteran programs only to end up back on the street after a well-intended housing voucher program leaves them feeling isolated at a vulnerable time.

The nonprofit’s plan for Leeds is unique in that the housing complex will be developed on federal property and in partnership with the VA.

The project in Pittsfield and others planned for the former State Police Training Academy in Agawam, the vacant Chapin School in Chicopee and elsewhere are slated for private property that Soldier On acquires.

Similar to Pittsfield, the Northampton housing complex will enable veterans to earn equity in their units. The program requires veterans to buy their units for $2,500 and then make ongoing rent payments that are used in part for the upkeep of the units. The rent will be tied to Housing and Urban Development guidelines, which Soldier On estimates to be about $600 a month. Leftover money at the end of the year is returned to equity holders.

There’s no doubt the need is great. Soldier On estimated as recently as this summer that 85 percent of the veterans it serves are dealing with substance abuse, 80 percent have mental health issues and more than 70 percent have both.

Less than one-quarter of the homeless veterans have valid driver’s licenses, which makes getting to appointments difficult and sets them up for failure.

This new model is worth a try.

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Soldier On fundraiser aims to help homeless veterans

PLYMOUTH – New Hampshire’s Soldier On project, which is working to find permanent housing for homeless veterans, will kick off its fundraising effort at an event Nov. 29 at the Common Man Inn and Spa.

Soldier On is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization that works with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies to provide veterans with shelter and support in an environment that offers dignity, integrity and hope.

The organization’s mission is to offer a permanent source of care for veterans that includes immediate and long-term housing with services delivered where they live. The project is designed to assist them in their transition from homelessness to homeownership.

The event will formally mark the beginning of a fundraising effort for Soldier On’s first New Hampshire permanent housing community, said Cathy Bentwood, director of the Bridge House Homeless shelter in Plymouth and a member of the local Soldier On leadership team.

The project has had strong local support from veterans, business leaders and state and federal political leaders, all of whom are committed to providing the kinds of services and assistance that veterans themselves say they need and want, Bentwood said.

The goal is to alleviate the problem of homeless veterans in the North Country and statewide, she said.

The group is planning a veterans’ housing facility in Holderness, though details of the project are still being worked out.

“It’s an honor to be part of Soldier On’s New Hampshire initiative,” Bentwood said. “Soldier On is ahead of the curve in solving this problem.”

Local Soldier On team members have been meeting this fall with potential contributors to the project. Those meetings went well, and there is now a more detailed project plan, which will be shared at the event, she said.

The goal for Phase 1 of the fundraising project is $75,000, which will cover the predevelopment costs.

Common Man owner Alex Ray has offered a 1-to-1 match for the first $25,000 committed.

The event will begin with a reception at 6 p.m. and will feature remarks by Jack Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, as well as members of the New Hampshire leadership team.

Those wishing to attend or seeking more information may call 536-3720 or email kristine@lruw.org. Gifts of all sizes will be accepted.

Read the article here: http://www.unionleader.com/article/20121122/NEWHAMPSHIRE09/121129657

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Homeless women vets struggle for aid

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – Northampton, Mass. (WWLP)

Women veterans are the fastest growing segment of the military and  they’re also the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

The Soldier On home in Northampton on the campus of the VA Medical Center is a second chance for the 12 women who live there.

Constance Zamora, an Air Force Veteran, told 22News, “It’s literally saved my life. it’s changed my life.”

The women are all veterans and each ended up homeless after serving their country.

Denise Jefferson, an Air Force Veteran, told 22News, “I went into the service because my father was in the service and my grandfathers and I was keeping up the stuff.”

Jefferson said, “I was literally on the street. When I walked in here I had a paper bag.”

Some were sexually assaulted during their time in the service, many suffer from mental illness and substance abuse.

Dawn Lehouiller, an Army Reserve veteran, said, “I ended up committing crimes to support my drug habit I did some time in jail.”

With few resources for women veterans and an overwhelming stigma towards their issues, it took these women years to  find the help they need.

Katie Doherty with Soldier On’s Women Program said, “Women are not served the way that men are served.”

This inequality something that isn’t lost to the Veterans Administration, but change has come slowly.

Jim Seney, a program manager at the VA of Central and Western Massachusetts, said, “In a real male dominated culture we’ve really come a long way. There’s this misconception that women don’t go to the front lines but they are supplying to front lines so they are right there they are experiencing military trauma that is a misconception that they don’t have, they do and the after effects of that can be just as devastating for women as for men.”

The VA has hired a women’s veteran care coordinator and is pushing for more funding to address the issue.

Soldier On, which is a non profit organization, plans to add 16 more beds to its program for women and open up their units to veterans with children.

Lehouiller said, “I think the stigma with women is that especially in the military is that women are supposed to be responsible not supposed to have problems we’re not supposed to be homeless we’re supposed to be well put together and they don’t realize we’re people too things happen and we need help too.”

To view this story and video click here.

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For veterans, a place to find some help

COLONIE — Albany County Executive Dan McCoy rolled out Sunday what he says is the first phase of transforming the former county nursing home campus into a sprawling services and housing center for veterans struggling to adapt to life after combat.

The county and the nonprofit group Soldier On have turned a long vacant two-story office space not far from the Ann Lee Home into the headquarters for the Albany County Veterans Resource Center. While plans to turn the former nursing home just across from Albany International Airport into a housing center for homeless veterans are still far from completion, the offices of the resource center should be open in roughly a month.

The center will help guide veterans of any age to the resources available and also aid those in need of temporary financing for those looking to find a home.

McCoy, himself an Iraq veteran, was joined Sunday outside the new offices by a host of other elected officials, military personnel and a couple hundred veterans.

“We have to service our vets,” McCoy said. “We have to be there for those suffering financially, from (brain injuries), from PTSD, whatever. We want to be a one-stop shop. We want to set an example.”

The project is being funded by Soldier On with the help of grants and donations and will come at no cost to the county. Soldier On has set up similar programs in Massachusetts.

McCoy hopes the Albany branch will eventually be a campus-like setting, with housing and ways for vets to take classes there through SUNY. The project is ambitious and will take time to complete, McCoy says, but he believes the newly opened resource center will immediately aid the more than 18,000 vets in the county, many of whom face emotional and financial issues that are only fully understood by others who have served their country.

McCoy knows this firsthand. When he returned from Iraq, he said he avoided confronting the toll his tour took on him.

“I saw too many burials of my brothers and sisters oversees. I said I would never go to a VFW post,” McCoy said, speaking Sunday to a tent full of generations of veterans in front of the new veterans center. “I just didn’t want to deal with what I had to deal with, because it makes you think about stuff. It’s easier to shut things down and move on … you just do the mission and come back.”

Problems plaguing returning veterans are well documented: depression, post-traumatic stress, self medication with alcohol and drug abuse, problems finding a home and a job. Many returning troops come from families living below or near the poverty line, making them much more susceptible to those roadblocks.

Having a place where vets can speak with someone who understands what they’re going through goes a long way, McCoy said, as many returning troops cannot bring themselves to confide their darkest hours of combat to even their loved ones.

“There is an epidemic of disconnect,” said Col. David Sutherland. The special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who focuses on military and family programs gave a rousing speech at Sunday’s news conference. Places like the veterans resource center are in place, Sutherland said, to help vets “Achieve what they want to achieve: A balance of education, meaningful employment and access to health care. It takes a whole of society approach.”

John Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, said he wants to help vets of all ages who are suffering now while also keeping those returning from Iraq or Afghanistan from falling into hard times. Of the Vietnam veterans Soldier On has identified in the state, Downing said 90 percent of them try to make a living earning just 30 percent of the state’s median income or less.

Another issue for some vets, Downing said, is that some act criminally when they have trouble adapting to life back home, leading to incarceration.

“Veterans are not a protected class of citizens in our society,” Downing said. “We all want to think that because we appreciate what they do, that they’re special, but they’re not protected.”

Click here to view this story.

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Former Chapin School in Chicopee to be used for veterans' housing

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – A former Chicopee school will soon serve as affordable housing for veterans who were once homeless.

Soldier On plans to turn the old Chapin School on Meadow Street in Willimansett into a housing complex. The facility will include several living units, along with veterans’ services.

John Downing, President of Soldier On told 22News that we owe it to veterans to provide them with a place to live.

“Everybody that is a veteran, everyone that has ever put on the American military uniform has said to you and me ‘I will die for you,’ and we don’t clearly hear that, and we thought if the people who have said ‘I will die for you’ and give us their life, should be able to own where they live which will stabilize their lives,” Downing said.

The plan is also a win for Chicopee; it will be the first time the building is on the tax rolls, and it will bring in an extra $30,000 a year in property taxes for the city.

Soldier On has facilities in Pittsfield and Northampton, and is planning on adding housing for veterans at the site of the former State Police Academy in Agawam.

Read the full story 

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Former Chapin School in Chicopee to be used for veterans’ housing

CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – A former Chicopee school will soon serve as affordable housing for veterans who were once homeless.

Soldier On plans to turn the old Chapin School on Meadow Street in Willimansett into a housing complex. The facility will include several living units, along with veterans’ services.

John Downing, President of Soldier On told 22News that we owe it to veterans to provide them with a place to live.

“Everybody that is a veteran, everyone that has ever put on the American military uniform has said to you and me ‘I will die for you,’ and we don’t clearly hear that, and we thought if the people who have said ‘I will die for you’ and give us their life, should be able to own where they live which will stabilize their lives,” Downing said.

The plan is also a win for Chicopee; it will be the first time the building is on the tax rolls, and it will bring in an extra $30,000 a year in property taxes for the city.

Soldier On has facilities in Pittsfield and Northampton, and is planning on adding housing for veterans at the site of the former State Police Academy in Agawam.

Read the full story 

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Success Story: Willie Ledbetter

Each month Soldier On highlights a formerly homeless veterans success story.

 

The low point is easy to remember for Willie Ledbetter.

“Sitting in a graveyard in Hartford, injecting with heroin – that was my rock bottom,” Willie recalls. It was the mid-1990s, and the U.S. Army infantry veteran was homeless and strung out. “A tombstone waiting for the exact date of death,” as he puts it.

Fast forward to the present, where a rejuvenated and reborn Willie Ledbetter serves as Outreach Coordinator for Soldier On, visiting prisons, jails, shelters and boarding houses in an effort to bring homeless veterans to a more appropriate place to begin recovery. An ex-convict himself, who served three long jail sentences for drug-related crimes following his military discharge in 1976, he carries substantial street credibility when dealing with troubled homeless veterans.

“Guys relate to me because I’ve been to jail and I’m a product of the streets,” Willie said.

Willie grew up in Hartford, with dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot or astronaut. Instead, he dropped out of 9th grade on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated.

“I realized later that went directly against Dr. King’s teachings,” Willie said. “I dropped out instead of staying in school and furthering my education.”

Willie soon hooked up with the wrong crowd and spent some time in juvenile detention. Recognizing what might lie ahead on the streets, he joined the National Guard in 1972, and two years later enlisted in the Army. He was stationed in Germany, trained as a gunner. It was during this time that he started smoking heroin. He had earlier dabbled with alcohol and marijuana, but after his discharge from the military, his addiction led to street hustles, robbery, drug deals and the three jail terms over the next 19 years. He has a daughter, Robin, but was barely there for the early years of her life. The product of addicted parents, Robin was involved in the murder of a Hartford cab driver when she was 14 and is now 15 years into a 50-year state prison sentence.

In 1995, Willie was on a two-year run of street hustling to support his drug habit, dodging arrest despite committing crimes including larceny and shoplifting. It was then that he hooked up with a counselor who helped place him in a 21-day in-patient substance abuse treatment program at the VA Medical Center in Leeds. When the 21 days were up, he was offered a bed at Soldier On, located on the VA Leeds campus, plus help finding work. He was a materials handler at a local plastics company, worked as a welder and nursing assistant, and kept up with his 12-Step Program. He has been sober since 1995, is a born-again Christian and is unapologetic about his passion for playing chess. The consummate team player at Soldier On, Willie has responded to the agency’s needs by serving in a number of capacities, including general manager.

Soldier On, he said, “granted me an opportunity in life. I was fortunate that I was a veteran. Because of my history, I didn’t believe I’d be given an opportunity like the one Soldier On gave me. Soldier On doesn’t judge your past. They look at your future and your goals and work with you to become a productive member of society again.”

Willie recognizes the role of spirituality in his own turnaround, and emphasizes that element when speaking to fellow veterans.

“It’s not just about going to meetings and getting  yourself a sponsor,” Willie said. “You’ve got to get yourself a spiritual foundation. You give it your all to get that drug, so you’ve got to have that same drive to get your faith, and that’s what keeps you sober.”

Now, as a way of giving back to the community, Willie also speaks with at-risk students about his own background, including its terrible effects on his daughter’s life. For Soldier On, he seeks out at-risk veterans in the courts and jails, makes the rounds of homeless shelters, and brings the homeless veterans to Leeds if they are sober and willing.

“He’s a man who believes in redemption. He’s living proof,” a Springfield newspaper columnist once wrote of Willie.

“This program can change your life,” Willie says.

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Moving On, Thanks to "Soldier On"

Former Soldier On resident Mark Coleman is featured in the Department of Labor’s newsletter:

Moving On, Thanks to ‘Soldier On’

Physical and emotional issues caused Army veteran Mark Coleman to separate from his family and then lose his job. But Coleman turned his life around, thanks to Soldier On, a departmental grantee in Massachusetts, which offers housing, meals, recovery treatment, career counseling and job placement to veterans. Coleman said the program provides “the environment to decide what you want to do with your life, and the tools and resources to succeed.” Soldier On helped Coleman get a temporary shipping job with a local candle maker. This work experience led to his landing a full-time job with benefits at a large firearms manufacturer. Now that his life has changed for the better, Coleman said he eventually hopes to attend college and become a substance abuse counselor to “allow me to help others.”

To view the newsletter visit http://www.dol.gov/_sec/newsletter/ .

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Moving On, Thanks to “Soldier On”

Former Soldier On resident Mark Coleman is featured in the Department of Labor’s newsletter:

Moving On, Thanks to ‘Soldier On’

Physical and emotional issues caused Army veteran Mark Coleman to separate from his family and then lose his job. But Coleman turned his life around, thanks to Soldier On, a departmental grantee in Massachusetts, which offers housing, meals, recovery treatment, career counseling and job placement to veterans. Coleman said the program provides “the environment to decide what you want to do with your life, and the tools and resources to succeed.” Soldier On helped Coleman get a temporary shipping job with a local candle maker. This work experience led to his landing a full-time job with benefits at a large firearms manufacturer. Now that his life has changed for the better, Coleman said he eventually hopes to attend college and become a substance abuse counselor to “allow me to help others.”

To view the newsletter visit http://www.dol.gov/_sec/newsletter/ .

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Soldier On Hosts MassVetsAdvisor Showcase

Berkshire Eagle:

Friday August 17, 2012

PITTSFIELD — State and local officials Thursday introduced a new website aimed at making it easier for veterans to connect with benefits and service programs offered in Massachusetts.

MassVetsAdvisor.org can quickly tell veterans of all stripes and ages which of the 320 benefit initiatives offered in Massachusetts they qualify for, and likewise, it can connect them with any of the 95 veteran’s service programs offered in the state, according to its creators.

“[Massachusetts] has the best benefits system in the country … but it’s created so many programs that when veterans try to access that system, it’s like putting a fire hose in their mouth and turning it on,” Coleman Nee, the state Secretary of Veterans’ Services, said to a room full of veterans at Soldier On’s Pittsfield campus.

The site was developed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute in collaboration with the state De partment of Veterans Services.

In addition to helping veterans, the goal of the website is to demonstrate the value of broadband internet connectivity to populations that are currently underserved, according to the institute, whose mission in part is to increase adoption of broadband use.

“What this site does is create relevance … they now have a reason to go online,” said Jason Whittet, the institute’s deputy director.

Kyle Toto, a recent veteran of thewar in Afghanistan, helped design the website. He described coming back to the U.S. and feeling lost in the jumbled system of benefits and programs.

“Everyone’s out there to help us,” he said. “It’s a sea of goodwill, but it’s confusing. … I knew [benefits] were out there, but I didn’t know where to look for them.”

John F. Downing, the CEO and president of Soldier On, said MassVetsAdvisor.org would directly benefit the veterans his organization serves and others by preventing people from “falling through the service gaps.”

“Our veterans in this building are going to be able to go online and pop from portal to portal and cloud to cloud to get all the information they need,” he said.

The event doubled as a campaign stop for U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, a Springfield Democrat currently running for re-election in the new 1st Massachusetts District, which includes Berkshire County.

Downing delivered a strong endorsement of Neal, who touted his support of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The stimulus bill has provided $45.5 million in funding to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, according to the state auditor’s office.

Neal said the state’s new veterans’ portal, made possible by that stimulus funding, will make sure struggling veterans have “the opportunity to bounce back.”

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