Veterans’ Housing Dedicated at Soldier On in Leeds
Daily Hampshire Gazette | June 29,2016 | Dan Crowley
NORTHAMPTON — James Oliver’s home burned down five years ago in upstate New York, leaving him homeless.
The 60-year-old Vietnam veteran migrated to the Soldier On homeless shelter on the grounds of the VA medical center in Leeds, not knowing where his next permanent home might be.
Katrina Dore, 38, a U.S. Air Force veteran, left an abusive marriage and eventually found space in Soldier On’s former transitional home for women on the VA grounds after spending considerable time on the streets.
“I was living out of my car, all the way from Kentucky to Vermont, wherever I could stay,” said Dore, a New Hampshire native.
Oliver and Dore are the new faces of Soldier On’s first homeless veterans ownership housing on a VA campus, and the new Women and Children’s Housing Unit, which represents another innovative housing concept for veterans.
“Four and a half years I have waited for this,” Oliver said of his new home at the 44-unit Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community, where about 150 people gathered for a dedication ceremony Wednesday.
“I’m excited about moving in,” said Oliver, who served as a U.S. military police officer and assisted with the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese from Saigon in 1975. “I’ve watched them build this right outside my window.”
The facility allows veterans who have been successful in the Soldier On program to purchase an equity stake in their homes. The idea is for veterans to become homeowners while surrounded by the support services they need throughout their lives.
The nonprofit organization built its first such development in Pittsfield, a 39-unit facility that is also named after Mansfield, a decorated veteran and former deputy secretary of veterans affairs who died in 2013.
The ceremony outside the newly built townhouse-style homes was marked by several impassioned speeches from local, state and federal officials, as well as John “Jack” Downing, chief executive officer of Soldier On.
“We’re trying to make a difference in the place we live,” Downing told the crowd. “The more we give, the more we chip away at the barriers.
“The standard for homeless veterans is beautiful, affordable housing,” he continued. “What we give away lives on forever in the people we give it to.”
Needs of individuals
The keynote speaker was retired Col. David W. Sutherland, a former special assistant to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Sutherland gave a powerful account of his own combat experience in two wars, particularly in Iraq, and the sacrifices of the men he commanded who put their lives on the line, for their country and, in one case, for him.
“American people know what we are, but they may not know us,” Sutherland said. “You can’t talk about us without understanding the unique needs of individuals.”
Sutherland recounted examples of veterans and their families who fell on hard times, and stressed why the new housing model built by Soldier On, in collaboration with the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System, is important to providing veterans with dignity and respect in their lives.
“The power of humiliation when you don’t fit in can be overwhelming,” he said. “This is potential, not pity, and recognizes that sometimes people need a hand up, not a handout.
“We will not tolerate another generation of homeless veterans,” Sutherland said.
Other speakers included U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Worcester; Lisa Pape, national director of homeless programs at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; Francisco Urena, the state’s secretary of veterans’ services; John Collins, director of the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System; Michael Gondek, vice president of the Life Initiative; and Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan.
Sullivan described the new housing as “justice for vets.”
“Remember every day you live here, it’s your home,” Sullivan told the veterans shortly before they were presented with Soldier On welcome mats.
Women and children
Although the men who will own and occupy the approximately 410-square-foot units at the Gordon H. Mansfield Community have not yet moved in, 15 women have taken up residence since December in Soldier On’s Women and Children’s Housing Unit just down the hill. A 16th is expected to arrive this week, bringing the development to capacity.
Lou Ann Hazelwood, 60, is the oldest veteran living at the women’s transitional housing, which currently has no children in residence. She said the tenants support each other, hearing each other’s problems and helping solve them.
“We have women coming from all walks of life in all different situations,” said Hazelwood, a U.S. Army veteran who hails from New York and who has been involved with the Soldier On program for four years.
Many of the women living in the transitional housing have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, have a history of substance abuse, or been victims of domestic or military sexual violence. About a dozen of the woman earlier lived in transitional cottages run by Soldier On on the VA campus.
The program provides a variety of wellness programs, including stabilizing mental and physical health, group sessions on building self-esteem, and programs geared toward education, job training and employment.
There is a waiting list to get into the housing and programs, and women will typically stay in such transitional housing about a year on average, said Sara Scoco, director of Soldier On’s women’s program, during a tour of the property.
“Typically, women stay longer because they come to us having lost everything — all sense of self-confidence and self-esteem,” Scoco said.
The youngest of the residents is 27-year-old Charley Mitchell, who grew up in Holyoke and enlisted in the U.S. Navy right out of high school, and is planning to become a certified nursing assistant. A former crew chief on U.S. Navy planes, Mitchell came to Soldier On from a substance abuse rehabilitation program in New Bedford.
After several years in the military, an experience that took her to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, Mitchell said she had great difficulty adjusting to civilian life.
“It was all I knew,” Mitchell said of her military experience. “It was who I was. It was my identity.”
Mitchell said she is finding the support she needs in the women’s program to move forward with her life.
“Everybody really cares about each other,” Mitchell said. “My grandfather died while I was here and nobody left me alone. I think it’s helpful to be with people who’ve had similar experiences to you. There’s no judgment because they’ve all been there.”
Heather Aslin is one veteran who said she lost everything when she relapsed after eight years of sobriety while living in Monmouth County, New Jersey. A U.S. Navy veteran who has a long history with substance abuse and who suffered military sexual trauma, Aslin said the women’s program is helping her rebuild her self-esteem as she works on getting back into school to obtain a social work degree.
“My addiction has taken me to places that are not fun,” Aslin said before Wednesday’s dedication ceremony. “I’m blessed that I found this place, because it’s amazing.”
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.