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Soldier On moves ahead with housing for veterans in Leeds

  • Soldier On sign at the VA Center in Leeds where they will be starting a new housing project as part of the Soldier On campus.<br/><br/>
  • Soldier on residence at the VA center in Leeds.  Across from it is where the new housing project will go.<br/><br/>
  • Woods where the new housing project will go at the VA Center in Leeds.<br/><br/><br/><br/>

The nonprofit, known for providing shelter and support to homeless veterans, and the Department of Veterans Affairs are partnering to build 44 units in a four-building cluster that will serve as long-term housing for male veterans and a 16-unit transitional center for women veterans and their children.

The roughly $8 million project, funded primarily by the VA with some money coming from the state, is planned for 9 acres overlooking Route 9 on the southeast portion of the VA’s hospital grounds.

“This project will take underutilized land and create permanent, affordable and sustainable housing for veterans who are in need of this hospital,” said John “Jack” Downing, CEO of Soldier On.

Downing said the project will be the first in which permanent housing for homeless veterans — or vets on the brink of being homeless — will be constructed in partnership with the VA and directly on a federal campus.

“If the Northampton project is successful, the VA would like to replicate it on many of the 123 campuses it owns,” Downing said.

Steven Connor, Northampton’s longtime veterans’ agent, is encouraged about Soldier On’s new model. Building a place for chronically homeless veterans to live, bringing services to their doorstep and surrounding them with other vets could be significant steps in keeping them from ending up back on the streets, he said.

“Practically speaking, you can’t get rid of homelessness completely, but this is one of those new models that really is needed,” said Connor, director of the city-led Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services Department that serves veterans in several Valley communities.

Approval process

The Planning Board reviewed Soldier On’s plans at its meeting last Thursday, giving them high marks, said Carolyn Misch, the city’s senior land use planner.

“They thought the project was really great and were generally pleased with it,” Misch said in an email.

The board made a few recommendations to the Zoning Board of Appeals regarding light levels and pedestrian access. The ZBA is responsible for granting the organization’s comprehensive permit, which is filed as a 40B affordable housing project. The zoning panel has scheduled a Dec. 13 meeting public hearing on the matter.

Downing estimated the project could begin in six months to a year, though it depends on several matters related to financing, lease arrangements with the VA and local permitting.

While Soldier On owns and operates housing complexes for homeless veterans in other communities, the Leeds project is unique because the organization is teaming up with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The federal agency will provide the bulk of the roughly $8 million in development funds through its Innovation Initiative grant program.

The model is designed so that the veterans will have the support and services of the whole VA community — all on the same campus. In addition to housing, veterans can tap into job training, placement assistance and other transitional programs, as well as get substance abuse treatment, medical care and mental health counseling.

Not only will the housing help homeless vets get back on their feet, the hospital will be able to treat the veterans on an outpatient basis rather than having them stay in the hospital for many treatments.

“It’s a good match to have public housing aligned with the VA programs,” said John Paradis, a VA spokesman in Leeds. “The VA is investing in this because they know Soldier On is recognized in these areas.”

Downing credited Roger Johnson, director of the VA’s Leeds campus, with setting the vision for the project shortly after he took over. Johnson’s desire to locate permanent housing on campus was a major shift in how the hospital operates, Downing said.

“This hospital has a very progressive hospital director,” he said.

Through the arrangement, Soldier On will obtain the land from the VA through a so-called enhanced-use lease. The local organization would then be responsible for financing, developing and maintaining the supportive housing facility.

Ending vet homelessness

Soldier On’s plan will help the VA meet its goal, being pushed by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, to end homelessness among veterans.

Candidates for the housing must be homeless veterans, or be at risk of becoming homeless, and meet income guidelines. Many of the veterans in the at-risk categories served during the Vietnam era, Downing said.

“There are a lot of veterans who are at risk for being homeless in these communities,” he said, referring to the four western counties of Massachusetts.

Soldier On decided to build a transitional center for women as part of the project, rather than in Pittsfield as originally planned, after many women veterans expressed a desire to have a “safe and comfortable” place to stay.

“We have 12 women with us now every night and we’ll be able to house more women in a neighborhood that’s very safe and very comfortable for them and their children,” Downing said. “These are the things that help people stabilize.”

Unlike Soldier On’s existing transitional housing for veterans in Leeds, which on any given night serves up to 200 people, the new housing units will be permanent and veterans who live there will earn equity in their units through a cooperative, limited-equity program.

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 Downing estimated at $600 a month. Leftover money at the end of the year is divvied up and returned to the equity holders.

Connor believes that giving veterans equity in the home and surrounding them with fellow veterans are key elements, compared to an existing housing voucher program in which many veterans feel isolated once they move out on their own.

Through that Housing and Urban Development program, called VASH, or Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, qualified veterans receive vouchers they can use for housing, similar to a Section 8 housing vouchers for low-income families. Veterans who participate in the program agree to accept social services from the VA.

Connor said the program has had some success, but there is still a “stubborn subset” of homeless veterans who have been cycling through the transitional systems in place throughout the country.

The Soldier On model would take the VASH program a step further in that veterans will have staff on site to help them and a peer group as neighbors that better understands what they’re going through, Connor said.

“It will be more of a neighborhood of other vets who have been homeless,” Connor said.

Soldier On’s permanent housing projects began in 2010 when it opened 39 units in Pittsfield. In addition to Leeds, other projects are slated for the former State Police Training Academy in Agawam and for the long-closed Chapin School in Chicopee, as well as similar developments in other states.

The Soldier On model has drawn national attention in recent months, and its success is prompting it to work on housing programs in several other states. In September, the organization landed $1.1 million in grant money from the VA to provide about 25 beds for veterans in Florida.

Soldier On oversees 235 veterans living in transitional housing and another 50 veterans residing in permanent supportive housing apartments in Pittsfield.

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