On Friday, August 17th Pittsfield Mayor, Linda Tyer toured Soldier On’s Pittsfield campus to see the site where the women’e permanent housing facility will be. Soldier On plans to break ground this fall.
On Friday, August 17th Pittsfield Mayor, Linda Tyer toured Soldier On’s Pittsfield campus to see the site where the women’e permanent housing facility will be. Soldier On plans to break ground this fall.
In an effort to provide affordable housing for Military Veterans, Soldier On and HLP kicked off their new “Homes for Veterans” program this past weekend at the National Fantasy Football Convention in Fort Worth, Texas. The two nonprofit organizations have joined forces with mortgage companies to receive donations of foreclosed homes. Once the homes have been renovated, they will be offered for sale at deeply discounted prices to Military Veterans and their families.
Citi Mortgage has provided the first two homes, one each in Beaumont, Texas and Brownsville, Texas. Working with a variety of suppliers in the housing industry, Soldier On will renovate the homes and make them “move-in ready” for Veterans. Soldier On will also lead the evaluation and selection process of potential Veterans for the program.
Once a Veteran is selected for the home, HLP will provide financial coaching to prepare the families for homeownership. The coaching involves developing a monthly budget, paying down debt and building their credit score and savings. HLP will continue work with the new homeowner to keep their financial plan on-track, ensure mortgage payments are made on-time and offer ongoing support. Soldier On will provide transitional services and connections to other Veterans’ programs to the new homeowners.
“Since our founding almost 25 years ago, we’ve helped about 25,000 Military Veterans get their life back on track by moving them into permanent housing,” said Bruce Buckley, Soldier On’s Chief Executive Officer. “This program fits perfectly with our mission to end homelessness for Veterans.”
“Like all homeowners, Veterans need to have the financial skills to buy and sustain homeownership,” said Mark Cole, HLP’s Chief Executive Officer. “By providing them with financial education and coaching both before and after homeownership, we can help them change the end of their story.”
DAYTONA BEACH – When local leaders started sparring over whether to build a new homeless shelter, a four-year tug of war broke out between emergency shelter advocates and permanent housing supporters.
Now it looks like both sides are going to get what they want. Construction is underway on the 100-bed First Step Shelter slated to open next year. And a Massachusetts-based nonprofit called Soldier On is making its move to find property in Daytona Beach to build homes for the homeless.
Soldier On’s plan is to construct apartments or town home-style units the once-homeless residents could stay in as long as they wanted. They could even become partial owners.
Helping homeless people cobble together enough money from Social Security benefits, Veterans Administration assistance, federal housing vouchers and meager wages from part-time jobs to get a roof over their heads isn’t new in Volusia County. But the Soldier On project would mark the first time in county history that a large permanent housing complex was built exclusively for people coming off the streets.
When local homeless people move into places of their own now, they’re connected with whatever housing works and they’re scattered around the area, sometimes shunned by neighbors who find out about their past. The Soldier On vision is for a cohesive village of formerly homeless people who understand and help one another, and have quick access to a plethora of support services.
“They have probably the best reputation in the country for doing these projects,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, who serves as president of the First Step Shelter Board. “We see the long-term housing as a second step. I recognize the problem we’re having with affordable housing.”
Nothing is definite yet, but Soldier On officials have their eye on a 17-acre property on George Engram Boulevard a short distance east of Nova Road. The site across from Bonner Elementary School, vacant since the public housing on it was demolished around 2006, is owned by the Daytona Beach Housing Authority.
“They fell in love with it because it’s a huge piece of property to do everything we envisioned,” said L. Ronald Durham, the city’s Community Relations Manager, who has been heavily involved in local efforts to help the homeless. “We have a bold vision for the site if we can acquire it.”
If Soldier On stays focused on that property just east of the Midtown Cultural and Educational Center, the Housing Authority’s board will ultimately decide whether to sell the land. Durham expects to give a presentation on the Soldier On proposal to the Housing Authority board at their next meeting.
Since the Daytona Beach Housing Authority is in the process of hiring a new executive director, the board might wait for the new agency head to take the helm before making a decision. Henry said board members he’s spoken to “seem supportive of the project,” and he noted that the Housing Authority might be able to provide housing vouchers for residents of the new complex.
If things fall into place, there could be new buildings on the site with space for 50-100 people within the next few years. There could even be a convenience store so the new residents, many who probably wouldn’t have cars, would have easy access to basic necessities.
If the George Engram Boulevard property doesn’t work out, Soldier On officials say they’ve checked out other sites on their visits to Daytona Beach that could work.
Local leaders who’ve seen Soldier On’s residential properties say they’re well-kept and attractive, and look like any other quality apartment buildings or town homes.
“This does not look like anything you’d envision for people who were once homeless,” Durham said. “It’ll look like part of the community.”
‘The timing is perfect’
Soldier On has helped more than 10,000 veterans over the past 25 years with everything from securing Veterans Administration benefits to finding jobs, and the agency bills itself as the largest provider of supportive services for veteran families in the United States.
Up to now Soldier On has exclusively helped veterans, but the Daytona Beach property would welcome both former soldiers and non-soldiers, men and women. It would be for single adults, not families.
At least to start, residents of the new housing would come mainly from First Step Shelter, which will also be for adults. Bruce Buckley, Soldier On’s president and CEO, said his agency would consider homeless people who don’t go to First Step, but priority will be given to those who go to that shelter, which is expected to open in about a year on a site near the Volusia County Branch Jail.
On May 30, the First Step Shelter Board entered into a memorandum of understanding with Soldier On. The plan is for shelter residents who do what’s needed to get their lives back on track to advance from that emergency housing to permanent homes in the Soldier On village.
“First Step is 100 percent behind it,” Henry said. “We’ll help them help us.”
But Soldier On isn’t asking the First Step board for any financial help.
“I like that they didn’t ask us for anything other than cooperation,” said First Step Board member Dwight Selby, an Ormond Beach city commissioner. “I’m excited about it. We’ve got to be able to send people somewhere. The timing is perfect.”
Fellow First Step board member Bill Hall, South Daytona’s mayor, also likes the plan.
“I don’t think it can be a negative in any way,” Hall said.
But some people who live and work near George Engram Boulevard are already worrying.
“All these things need to be out west,” said Johnnie Ponder, a longtime resident of the Midtown neighborhood a few blocks south of George Engram Boulevard. “Shelters, agencies, they can have them. Why do they need to come here?”
Buckley said his organization has to choose sites with good access to businesses, services and transportation, but the nonprofit also tries to “make joint decisions with a community.”
“We try not to go anywhere we’re pushing our way into an area,” he said.
Buckley said he’ll be back in Daytona Beach in a few weeks looking at sites.
The center of the city that Ponder referred to has had Daytona Beach’s largest concentration of homeless assistance agencies for more than a decade. Attempts over the past few years to increase that concentration and locate a homeless shelter in the city’s historic core were met with powerful opposition in four different locations.
But with homeless people and aggressive panhandlers more painfully visible than ever in the city’s center and beachside, many business owners and residents are running out of patience for the shelter and new housing to go up. Two local business owners told city commissioners at their meeting last week that the homeless have become more than just an avoidable annoyance.
Jennifer Finno Ellis, who lives downtown and runs a Main Street tattoo parlor, told city commissioners she recently saw two panhandlers in a turf fight on the corner of Ridgewood Avenue and International Speedway Boulevard. She stepped in to try to help the older panhandler, and said she wound up being attacked by the younger vagrant. She was left with multiple injuries and she’s hobbling around on crutches now.
More about Soldier On
Soldier On provides homeless veterans — as well as those at risk of becoming homeless — with personalized case management, legal help, financial assistance, transportation, basic medical and dental care, food, mental health counseling, treatment for addictions and life skills training. The agency also helps with everything from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.
All residents in Soldier On permanent housing are required to complete a life skills program that takes 15 hours and covers financial literacy, legal issues, rules and regulations, wellness and basic life skills. There are even Soldier On reintegration programs in jails and prisons.
“There’s so many layers to addressing homelessness,” Henry said.
Soldier On does not ban alcoholics and drug addicts from its properties, but it doesn’t allow illegal drug use in its homes and relapses are met with intervention efforts.
“Each individual develops a personalized plan for their own healing and recovery in a trauma-free environment,” Durham said. “There will be ongoing case management to make sure they’re a success and not a failure. These will be people who show quite a bit of promise.”
For its first 16 years, Soldier On only offered veteran services. Then in 2010 the agency based in Pittsfield, Mass., branched out and started providing permanent housing, some newly built and some in rehabbed schools.
The nonprofit owns and operates 177 affordable housing units in four Massachusetts cities. The organization says it’s expanding its housing now into New York, New Jersey, Mississippi and Florida.
In Volusia County, other groups have proposed more elaborate versions of what Soldier On hopes to do in Daytona Beach, including one plan for a large homeless village west of Interstate 95 and another proposal for a sprawling homeless community just west of New Smyrna Beach. But those ideas never progressed beyond words and drawings on paper.
Soldier On’s recipe for success has included a mix of tax credits, federal grants and loans to get its properties built.
The agency spent $7 million on its first housing complex, which is located in Pittsfield, and opened seven years ago. The average unit size is 525 square feet. Rent is $526 for a studio apartment and $582 for a one-bedroom home.
The 39 veterans who live there purchased a share in the limited-equity housing cooperative. The cooperatives can provide residents with some extra money when there’s a surplus, and they “get a sense of membership in a community,” Buckley said. “They’re not transient anymore.”
The nonprofit says the Pittsfield property has a resident retention rate of more than 90 percent, and an occupancy rate of nearly 100 percent.
Soldier On has three additional housing complexes in Massachusetts that opened in 2016 and 2017. It also has 19 permanent housing units scattered around Pittsfield, a western Massachusetts city of about 45,000.
Its 44-unit property in Leeds, Mass., cost $10 million to build and furnish, and charges $883 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. A renovated elementary school in Chicopee, Mass., cost $9.8 million to turn into a 43-unit residence that also charges $883 monthly for a one-bedroom unit.
Rent for the fully furnished units includes utilities, high-speed Internet access and basic cable. The units come with personal computers and 32-inch monitors that can also be used for watching TV, video conferencing for group counseling on everything from addictions to weight loss, and using Skype to connect with case managers and healthcare professionals. There are individually designed home screens with access to banking, VA benefits, medical services and prescription support.
Two Massachusetts officials said they’ve heard only good things about Soldier On properties.
“I’m not aware of any issues,” said Peter Marchetti, president of the Pittsfield City Council. “From touring the facilities, it seems good to me.”
Jerry Roy, an at-large member of the Chicopee City Council, said “it’s a good program.”
The Daytona Beach connection
Pete Gamble, a former executive director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, was the one who connected Daytona Beach and Soldier On. Three years ago, Gamble and the Housing Authority wanted to create a veterans village in Daytona Beach, so they went to Massachusetts to tour the Soldier On homes.
“We were very impressed, so we tried to do the same thing here,” said Gamble, who was celebrated during his tenure for getting several new Daytona Beach Housing Authority properties built.
Three sites in Daytona Beach were chosen as contenders for the housing. The current property on George Engram Boulevard was considered, as was land behind Campbell Middle School and property near the intersection of Mason Avenue and Bill France Boulevard. The effort failed, though, because “there was a lot of territorialism” among some Daytona Beach nonprofits, he said.
“We couldn’t get the support of the social service providers, and some of the funding depended on them signing a letter of support,” Gamble said.
Then six months ago, with First Step Shelter surging toward reality, Durham contacted Gamble to see if the Soldier On project could be revived. Gamble said he got everyone in touch with one another and then bowed out of the process since he retired from his position at the Housing Authority.
But Gamble still believes in Soldier On.
“They were the finest provider we saw,” he said.
Gamble believes permanent housing is a vital part of keeping people from sliding back into homelessness. He noted that some homeless people need an alternative to Housing Authority apartments since they wouldn’t meet that organization’s standards for criminal records and credit history.
The recently homeless also won’t be able to afford the climbing rents in the Daytona Beach area, and new First Step Shelter Executive Director Mark Geallis is afraid a new wave of homelessness could be coming. The city needs all the affordable housing it can get, Geallis said.
“If you don’t have a place after you stabilize them,” Gamble said, “the chance of recycling back to the street is very high.”
DAYTONA BEACH — The board that’s overseeing creation of a new homeless shelter hoped to open by the summer of 2019 is starting to plan for what will be done to help people after they leave the refuge for the unsheltered west of Interstate 95.
At their meeting Monday night, members of the First Step Shelter Board had a lengthy conversation via Skype with three top officials of a Massachusetts-based program that provides homes to the homeless.
The organization, Soldier On, is interested in building homes in Daytona Beach, and a large piece of open land on George Engram Boulevard next to the city’s Midtown Cultural & Educational Center has been targeted as a possible site for a new village for those with nowhere to go. The Daytona Beach Housing Authority controls the vacant property, which has been empty for more than 10 years, and would have to become a willing partner for that site to be used.
Soldier On runs its programs on donations and government grants, and isn’t asking the First Step Shelter Board for any money toward the proposed project.
“The gem and the jewel is they’re not asking you for anything,” said L. Ronald Durham, the city’s community relations manager and point person on the shelter.
People who live in Soldier On homes help cover their bills with federal veterans benefits, Social Security assistance programs and income they earn if they work. Despite its name, Soldier On provides permanent housing both for veterans and nonveterans.
Two members of the First Step Shelter Board were not at Monday’s meeting, but the five who were there voted unanimously to pursue an agreement with Soldier On. Once a formal agreement is drafted, it will be reviewed by City Attorney Robert Jagger and eventually voted on by the First Step board.
Soldier On officials, who have visited Daytona Beach several times, can proceed with their effort with or without the First Step Shelter Board’s partnership. But the nonprofit is hoping to join forces with those running First Step so they can house and assist people as they graduate from the 100-bed shelter.
“The key to the success of First Step is the second step,” Durham said.
Soldier On, formed in 1994, also provides preventative support services and reintegration programs in jails and prisons. All residents in Soldier On housing are required to complete life skills programs, and the agency provides case managers, access to healthy meals, transportation and other programs.
Since 2010, Soldier On has developed, constructed and managed several new and rehabbed permanent housing projects. The organization says one of its permanent housing cooperatives in Massachusetts provides homes for 39 homeless veterans and has a retention rate of 90 percent.
Residents can become part owners of their new homes, and they are able to live in them permanently if they choose. Soldier On has about 200 housing units in Massachusetts, and has other veterans communities in development in New York, New Jersey and Mississippi.
Pete Gamble, the former executive director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, said he tried several years ago to bring Soldier On housing to Daytona Beach. His vision was to put commercial uses on the first floor of buildings and residences above. But he wasn’t able to get enough support. Gamble said a few of Florida’s representatives in Washington, D.C., were willing to help secure funds, but local service agencies at the time didn’t like the idea of an outside agency coming in.
Now Gamble is taking another shot at the effort. Gamble said he visited a Soldier On housing site in Massachusetts and was “very impressed” with both the buildings and the program’s connections to local government, clergy and the Veterans Administration.
“These guys have done an outstanding job,” said Gamble, who was credited with dramatically improving public housing in Daytona Beach during his long tenure overseeing the Housing Authority. “We have to start working together as partners.”
There was widespread support for the idea among those who spoke at Monday’s meeting at City Hall, including Chet Bell and Mark Geallis, both former heads of nonprofits that help the homeless.
“This is promising,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, chairman of the First Step Shelter Board. “It wouldn’t take us long to get off the ground. It could be a sizeable number of units.”
Henry added later that he’s “excited” and thinks Soldier On housing has “the potential to make a deep impact” in Daytona Beach.
“We have to eventually explore something like this, so the the sooner the better,” the mayor said.
“I’m very much encouraged with this,” echoed Chase Tramont, a First Step Board member and Port Orange City Council member.
Durham gave a brief update on shelter construction at Monday’s meeting. He detailed some utility work being done, and said architectural plans are more than 30 percent complete.
Durham’s update didn’t get into specifics for the new building’s construction. At the end of the Feb. 21 City Commission meeting, City Manager Jim Chisholm gave a presentation on the shelter construction timeline. A document the city put together for that presentation shows site and foundation construction being completed in late October, and vertical construction being complete in a year, on March 20 of next year to be exact.
But the shelter wouldn’t open immediately. The records show the certificate of occupancy being issued on April 30, 2019, furnishings being complete on June 30, 2019, and operations starting at the shelter on July 15, 2019.
The 100-bed shelter is being built on a city-owned 626-acre site near the Volusia County Branch Jail that was recently annexed into city limits.
By Michael Hill, Associated Press
Soldier On, a Leeds, Mass.-based charity aiming to end veteran homelessness, constructed 16 units of transitional housing specifically for women in December 2015 — and they were immediately fully occupied.
“I think the need is much bigger than people realize, because it’s so hard to estimate the number of homeless female veterans, because they’re not identifying as veterans. They’re not identifying as homeless,” said Sara Scoco, the director of the women’s program at Soldier On.
“They’re oftentimes couch-surfing or staying in these relationships. A lot of women are living in their cars just to try and survive. A lot of women are taking care of families and … they’re too proud to say, ‘I’m homeless. I need help,’ ” Scoco said.
So Soldier On became one of the few nonprofits in America to construct housing specifically to meet the unique needs of female vets. The $3.1 million building in Leeds features four suites of four bedrooms for a total of 16 rooms.
There’s a shared living room, and the building sits on the Northampton VA Medical Center campus, which agreed to a 75-year lease to Soldier On for the housing property.
Women can stay for months or years at a time while they seek treatment, go back to school, save money or try to land a job, Scoco said.
Most have experienced some kind of abuse, said Scoco, including about 80 percent who are victims of military sexual trauma.
“It’s really intimidating for a woman to walk into the VA when many of the services are male-dominated,” Scoco said. “It’s often assumed that the woman is not the veteran, but the daughter or sister of the veteran herself.”
As word has spread, Scoco said Soldier On fielded calls from Colorado, Texas and as far away as Hawaii.
The organization receives funding from the VA, among other sources. And it is hoping to receive state money to build permanent housing specifically for women vets in Pittsfield.
The organization started in 1994 as United Veterans of America. As its men’s program grew, women also began to seek services, leading to the launch of the women’s program in 2005, which was mainly a separate unit within the men’s housing.
By Amanda Drane , The Berkshire Eagle
PITTSFIELD — In the coming year the city will see new housing for female veterans and another Verizon cell tower after the Zoning Board of Appeals approved special permits for the projects on Wednesday.
Soldier On’s housing project will consist of a two-story, 8,850-square-foot building at 402 West Housatonic St. with units that are 450 to 490 square feet each. The agency also runs a 16-unit transitional housing program for female veterans in Leeds, and the Pittsfield building will serve as an option for those women when they are ready to move on to more permanent housing. The residents will own shares in the building, intended for families with an income of less than $26,000 a year.
Construction on the housing project will begin in about a year at the earliest.
“I was charged with larceny and burglary,” says Longolucco. He was in the reserves for the Army, and then after went into law enforcement.
“I was arrested for possession of firearms,” says Marquis. “So that got me forty months in jail.” He is ex-military, 169th 11th Bravo, serving 5 years at Fort Benning Georgia.
The Cybulski Reintegration Unit in Enfield has three different groups targeted at helping inmates for life after prison. One group is for inmates nearing their release date, the second is for DUI offenders, and the third is specific for veterans like Longolucoo and Marquis.
“You have to apply. We do interviews — we look at histories,” says the John Tarascio, Warden of the Willard Cybulski Correction Institution, “There’s a variety of different factors that go into making sure that the inmate going into the unit is going to at least attempt to be successful.”
Tarascio believes in order to be successful, the inmates need to have a structured routine.
“Meaningful activity is very important in a correctional environment because it takes away idleness. When inmates are productive they start to feel good about themselves,” says Tarascio. “We want to make sure that we are ultimately making a commitment to reduce recidivism.”
The reintegration unit opened in 2015, and has been evolving over the past couple of years. Four months ago, Soldier On, a non-profit group for veterans was introduced into the program.
“They come every day Monday through Friday. They are here doing a variety of programming for the veteran population,” says Tarascio, “It ranges from life skills, addiction skills, transitional services, military benefits, and housing. They do a lot of trauma based, cognitive behavior treatment programs — stuff that is specifically for veterans.”
Alexis Truslow , the Mental Health Clinician for Soldier On, says the work she has done with the veteran inmates has been some of the most rewarding work she has done in her career.
“These folks have been willing to give their lives for our country,” says Truslow. “I think that they deserve the best that we can offer so they can get their life back on track.”
Longolucco is serving his first prison sentence, and he says this program has changed his life.
“Soldier On… I can’t say enough about the program — the program is phenomenal,” he says, “I am happy to share my time with other vets, and share our stories.”
For Marquis, this is his sixth time behind bars, but he says this will also be his last.
“I think if more of us were to jump into an opportunity of a program like this, I think there would be less recidivism,” says Marquis, “It’s the tools that we are missing that DOC and the administration has been grateful enough to give to us. Now we have something that we can utilize and try to rebuild our lives as we go back out.”
Marquis and Longolucco are set to be released within the next five years. They say they are determined to change the direction of their life with the new tools they have picked up in their time in the Cybulski Reintegration Unit.
“A lot of us face PTSD, and don’t know how to resolve the issues or have anybody to speak to about it,” says Marquis. “We have a comradery going on now and it is really good to know that you can go to another fellow serviceman and talk to him about what’s bothering you.”
Being incarcerated can be mentally grueling and Warden Tarascio says that also being a veteran adds an extra degree of difficulty.
“I think it is a difficult scenario because they are a veteran, and they served this country, they fight struggles that other inmates don’t,” says Tarascio.
That is why groups like Soldier On, are committed to trying to help incarcerated veterans.
“They come in free of charge to us and they’re here every day,” says Tarascio. “They have their psychiatrist, psychologist, program counselors, and military experts. I mean, it’s a well run organization that provides a myriad of opportunities for services that normally I don’t have the resources to commit. I don’t have the expertise.”
The inmates in the Cybulski Reintegration Unit spend roughly ten hours a day working to change who they were when they first came to prison, knowing full well that type of change takes hard work and dedication.
“I am not afraid to talk discuss anything that bothers me anymore, I am definitely owning up to what I have done wrong in the past,” says Marquis. “With a little time and effort everything is fixable.”
Tarascio says he hopes his inmates will continue to take advantage of the opportunities they are provided with, as he tries to serve those, who once served this country.
“If we can make them better than when they came in, then they have a chance at being a successful productive member of society. That is the goal,” says Tarascio. “We want them not to come back to our system.”