Soldier On Facility Planned in Plymouth, NH.

Jan 14, 2012 12:00 am

PLYMOUTH — A group of people is working to bring a permanent home for veterans to the Plymouth area. The facility will be a product of the Soldier On non-profit organization, which has 15 sites in nine states and is considered the best in the business of caring for homeless veterans.

“It’s the gold standard,” Cathy Bentwood said about Soldier On.

Bentwood is the executive director of the Bridge House in Plymouth, which provides resources and shelter to persons in crisis. Bentwood said she and others started a discussion about a year ago to think of a way to provide services designed for the specific needs of veterans. In July, town Selectman Valerie Scarborough brought her an article about Soldier On’s unique model.

“This is a really beautiful model,” said Bentwood.

About two months ago, the coalition of entities pursuing the project received word from Soldier On that the organization was as interested in Plymouth as Plymouth was in Soldier On.

In addition to Bentwood, those furthering the local project include the Lakes Region United Way’s Joyce Palmer, former state senator Deb Reynolds, representatives from local and county government, Alex Ray of the Common Man and others.

What makes Soldier On unique, compared to a conventional homeless shelter, is that it offers permanent housing, in which residents have an ownership stake, with the services they need to get their lives back on track. Services include mental health therapy, substance abuse counseling, job training and even employment opportunities.

At some of its facilities, such as the one in Pittsfield, Mass., Soldier On operates an emergency shelter, a transitional facility and a permanent housing arrangement. Bentwood said the plan for the Plymouth-area facility, which will be the first Soldier On project in New Hampshire, will only offer long-term housing as there are pre-existing shelters and transitional services for veterans in the region.

Bentwood said the state’s official count of homeless veterans is reported as about 450, though she thinks the actual figure is likely much higher. Bentwood believes veterans are especially vulnerable to finding themselves in crisis. In addition to the human failings that all people are susceptible to, veterans might be dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder or, increasingly, traumatic brain injury. Symptoms from these afflictions might make it difficult for veterans to find or hold a job in an already meager jobs market.

The facility that is planned for the Plymouth area would have space for about 50 veterans living in small, single-residency units. By the time they’re ready to move into the facility, the concept holds, the veterans would have already reached a point of stability and would be ready for employment. Veterans would buy their way into the facility by paying an initial fee of about $2,500, and then would pay a relatively small, inclusive monthly rent, such as $500. If the veterans choose to move out, they would “sell” their share back to the cooperative.

Organizers are still looking for a site to build the facility. Nick and Melissa Gretz have offered to donate a parcel in Thornton to the cause, Bentwood reported, and that land is being evaluated for its suitability.

Taylor Caswell, president of the Soldier On Development Company, the construction subsidiary of the non-profit, said facilities are typically built for $100,000 to $125,000 per unit. For a 50-unit project, the estimated total cost would be between $5-million and $6.25-million. Buildings are designed to be “very sustainable,” with photo-voltaic electricity generation and high-efficiency boilers to keep costs low for residents. HUD vouchers will help ensure that residents who aren’t able to earn enough money will be able to pay their rent, while funding from the Veterans Administration pays for services.

Money to pay for the initial cost of construction is cobbled together from what’s available, Caswell said. “We try to take advantage of whatever we can get our hands on.” In past projects, funding schemes have utilized state and federal grants, financing provided by local lenders and the sale of tax credits.

Caswell said that a key point of Soldier On’s success is that the facilities operate as a cooperative of residents, with each facility its own corporate structure led by an elected board of directors. The residents have collective ownership of their fate – they decide who is welcome to move in and they are empowered to govern themselves.

“We don’t have a lot of guys walking around in suits and ties telling veterans what do to, we have veterans telling veterans what to do,” he said. Veterans have a natural sense of duty and camaraderie, he said, and they develop a strong, supportive community that keeps each resident moving toward a brighter future. “It has worked exceptionally well,” he said. “The community ends up becoming a family.”

“We’re thrilled to looking at doing something in New Hampshire,” said Caswell. “There’s a great need.


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