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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