Fifty-One Homeless Vets Given Cooperative Keys to a New Home & Life

By David J. Thompson

In 2018, in Agawam, Mass., the last of a group of homeless veterans was handed their keys to home ownership. In total, 51 homeless veterans were not just given keys to their own housing cooperative but keys to a new life. For the first time in a long time, these veterans had a stable roof over their head and a host of supportive services to give them independence on their new journey.

When Anthony Wilson moved in that first week, he told his case manager, “Walking into my unit brought tears to my eyes. This is MY home, and no one can take that away from me.”

For Soldier On, a Northampton, Mass.-based veterans’ organization, the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Agawam was a key chapter at the end of an almost 10-year struggle for this site to be a veterans’ community. When staff from Soldier On set its eyes on the empty former home of the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy, it was love at first sight. The academy with its classic architecture of white Greek columns highlighted the stately four-story building on seven acres of landscaped open space. It would surely be an uplifting palace for poverty-stricken homeless veterans.

Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON

The state of Massachusetts handed over the property to Soldier On for $1 in 2010. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray called the act “a generational responsibility” to help the nation’s veterans. John (Jack) F. Downing, president of Soldier On, joined Murray in saying there is an obligation to help out “those who aren’t as gifted or able.” State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam, who initiated the project and filed the state bill to allow for the sale, characterized the project as “a hand up, not a handout.”

Not only does the community provide veterans with housing, but it also prepares them for practical living. The veterans go through a 35-hour life skills program, involving decision making, cooking, budgeting, weight loss, anger management and coping with mental health issues. The program also offers day trips, games and art to spur personal interests such as reading groups, performing arts and museum visits, fishing and camping excursions and professional sporting events. It also encourages veterans to volunteer in the community. For example, residents partnered with the Agawam Garden Club to weed and plant along Main Street. After years of homelessness, fighting isolation is a priority objective of Soldier On said Casey DiCicco, director of communications at Soldier On. Thus, each veteran is assigned a case manager, along with peer support, transportation to appointments in the community and a meal a day that veterans can eat in the dining room or take to their apartment. In addition to regular checkups, Soldier On has supplied each apartment with a 32-inch monitor that is both a TV and an interactive computer. The monitor, set up to encourage face-to-face meetings, is tied into a Soldier On service desk where the resident veterans can get immediate help and support through Skype or text. The organization has created a $2 million-dollar call center to serve its thousands of clients including the vets at Agawam.

These units will also build community by announcing activities via calendars for Agawam and other Soldier On sites. Additionally, the veterans will be able to make appointments online with a caseworker or medical staff. Currently, residents not only Skype with their case managers, but they are able to attend groups at different campuses and Skype with their families and other residents.

The community hosts 47 one-bedroom apartments of 475 square feet each and four studios with vaulted ceilings with large windows. The common areas include two patios with gas grills, a dining area for special events and social events, a greenhouse, laundry rooms, onsite office rooms and a converted auditorium that houses two units, a library and/or meeting room.

The organizational structure of the Soldier On cooperatives is modeled on Gordon Housing for Veterans These new housing cooperatives are not the first of their kind, but there should be many more. Thompson has written elsewhere about how after World War II housing cooperatives gave a home to veterans and their families (www.thenews.coop). Former NAHC Executive Director Doug Kleine also has written about them. From 1945 on, veterans housing cooperatives helped returning veterans to rebuild their lives. In an amazing national effort, 46 housing cooperatives for veterans were built in 15 states providing 14,721 units of cooperative housing for almost 50,000 members of veteran families. Soldier On Statistics A homeless vet can cost the public nearly $80,000 each year. The annual cost of a veteran at Soldier On is $17,000. This is a savings of roughly 80 percent for taxpayers. Gordon Mansfield Gordon Mansfield, a former deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, was a Pittsfield native and highly decorated Army veteran who survived two tours of duty in Vietnam. As company commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Mansfield sustained a spinal cord injury during the 1968 Tet Offensive for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross — the second highest personal decoration for valor in combat. Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam. CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON 5 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOUSING COOPERATIVES Mansfield Agawam Veterans’ Village. The property is owned for the first 15 years by Agawam Veterans Village LLC, which used state and federal historic tax credits to obtain the equity financing. The limited equity cooperative is the non-profit partner in the ownership of the project. The intent is for the cooperative to have an advisory board of four to five members elected by the residents and one or two board members appointed to the board from the Agawam community. After 15 years, the board of the limited equity cooperative will assume the property from the LLC.

Homeless veterans who meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) and low-income housing credit income thresholds are eligible to be cooperative members. Due to the VASH vouchers, the monthly carrying charge or rent to live at Agawam is set at one-third of their income.

Members of the cooperative have to obtain $2,500 to invest in one share. However, many of the homeless veterans are not able to raise the full amount. Fortunately, Soldier On has worked with a number of local banks and credit unions on a pool of funds. Those dollars can be donated or lent to prospective members. At the end of the year, if there are surplus funds after paying off all obligations, the cooperative issues a rebate to each member.

The Gordon H. Mansfield, Veterans’ Community in Agawam is a replication of the idea of the first limited equity cooperative that Soldier On completed nearby in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2010. The Pittsfield cooperative provides housing for 39 veterans in a community of all newly built housing.

Downing conceived and spearheaded the program for limited equity housing. Just before the dedication, Downing said, “Agawam is a community that many of our people would be comfortable living in. It offers a lot of supportive services, and this building is on rural property that allows our veterans to live together and do very, very well.”

Many groups involved in housing veterans are beginning to take a look at the veterans’ cooperative housing program at Solder On that promotes ownership and involvement.

To learn more about Soldier On, visit its web site at www.wesoldieron.org.

Read more articles like this in the current issue of CHQ


This article first appeared in Shelterforce.

David J. Thompson has visited Soldier On twice to learn about the progress of the limited equity cooperative model. He has worked on the California legislation and successful bond measure in 2014 which made $1 billion more available to house veterans in new ways. David is president of Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and a co-principal of Neighborhood Partners, LLC. www.npllc.org

 

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Fifty-One Homeless Vets Given Cooperative Keys to a New Home & Life

By David J. Thompson

In 2018, in Agawam, Mass., the last of a group of homeless veterans was handed their keys to home ownership. In total, 51 homeless veterans were not just given keys to their own housing cooperative but keys to a new life. For the first time in a long time, these veterans had a stable roof over their head and a host of supportive services to give them independence on their new journey.

When Anthony Wilson moved in that first week, he told his case manager, “Walking into my unit brought tears to my eyes. This is MY home, and no one can take that away from me.”

For Soldier On, a Northampton, Mass.-based veterans’ organization, the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Agawam was a key chapter at the end of an almost 10-year struggle for this site to be a veterans’ community. When staff from Soldier On set its eyes on the empty former home of the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy, it was love at first sight. The academy with its classic architecture of white Greek columns highlighted the stately four-story building on seven acres of landscaped open space. It would surely be an uplifting palace for poverty-stricken homeless veterans.

Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON

The state of Massachusetts handed over the property to Soldier On for $1 in 2010. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray called the act “a generational responsibility” to help the nation’s veterans. John (Jack) F. Downing, president of Soldier On, joined Murray in saying there is an obligation to help out “those who aren’t as gifted or able.” State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam, who initiated the project and filed the state bill to allow for the sale, characterized the project as “a hand up, not a handout.”

Not only does the community provide veterans with housing, but it also prepares them for practical living. The veterans go through a 35-hour life skills program, involving decision making, cooking, budgeting, weight loss, anger management and coping with mental health issues. The program also offers day trips, games and art to spur personal interests such as reading groups, performing arts and museum visits, fishing and camping excursions and professional sporting events. It also encourages veterans to volunteer in the community. For example, residents partnered with the Agawam Garden Club to weed and plant along Main Street. After years of homelessness, fighting isolation is a priority objective of Soldier On said Casey DiCicco, director of communications at Soldier On. Thus, each veteran is assigned a case manager, along with peer support, transportation to appointments in the community and a meal a day that veterans can eat in the dining room or take to their apartment. In addition to regular checkups, Soldier On has supplied each apartment with a 32-inch monitor that is both a TV and an interactive computer. The monitor, set up to encourage face-to-face meetings, is tied into a Soldier On service desk where the resident veterans can get immediate help and support through Skype or text. The organization has created a $2 million-dollar call center to serve its thousands of clients including the vets at Agawam.

These units will also build community by announcing activities via calendars for Agawam and other Soldier On sites. Additionally, the veterans will be able to make appointments online with a caseworker or medical staff. Currently, residents not only Skype with their case managers, but they are able to attend groups at different campuses and Skype with their families and other residents.

The community hosts 47 one-bedroom apartments of 475 square feet each and four studios with vaulted ceilings with large windows. The common areas include two patios with gas grills, a dining area for special events and social events, a greenhouse, laundry rooms, onsite office rooms and a converted auditorium that houses two units, a library and/or meeting room.

The organizational structure of the Soldier On cooperatives is modeled on Gordon Housing for Veterans These new housing cooperatives are not the first of their kind, but there should be many more. Thompson has written elsewhere about how after World War II housing cooperatives gave a home to veterans and their families (www.thenews.coop). Former NAHC Executive Director Doug Kleine also has written about them. From 1945 on, veterans housing cooperatives helped returning veterans to rebuild their lives. In an amazing national effort, 46 housing cooperatives for veterans were built in 15 states providing 14,721 units of cooperative housing for almost 50,000 members of veteran families. Soldier On Statistics A homeless vet can cost the public nearly $80,000 each year. The annual cost of a veteran at Soldier On is $17,000. This is a savings of roughly 80 percent for taxpayers. Gordon Mansfield Gordon Mansfield, a former deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, was a Pittsfield native and highly decorated Army veteran who survived two tours of duty in Vietnam. As company commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Mansfield sustained a spinal cord injury during the 1968 Tet Offensive for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross — the second highest personal decoration for valor in combat. Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam. CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON 5 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOUSING COOPERATIVES Mansfield Agawam Veterans’ Village. The property is owned for the first 15 years by Agawam Veterans Village LLC, which used state and federal historic tax credits to obtain the equity financing. The limited equity cooperative is the non-profit partner in the ownership of the project. The intent is for the cooperative to have an advisory board of four to five members elected by the residents and one or two board members appointed to the board from the Agawam community. After 15 years, the board of the limited equity cooperative will assume the property from the LLC.

Homeless veterans who meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) and low-income housing credit income thresholds are eligible to be cooperative members. Due to the VASH vouchers, the monthly carrying charge or rent to live at Agawam is set at one-third of their income.

Members of the cooperative have to obtain $2,500 to invest in one share. However, many of the homeless veterans are not able to raise the full amount. Fortunately, Soldier On has worked with a number of local banks and credit unions on a pool of funds. Those dollars can be donated or lent to prospective members. At the end of the year, if there are surplus funds after paying off all obligations, the cooperative issues a rebate to each member.

The Gordon H. Mansfield, Veterans’ Community in Agawam is a replication of the idea of the first limited equity cooperative that Soldier On completed nearby in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2010. The Pittsfield cooperative provides housing for 39 veterans in a community of all newly built housing.

Downing conceived and spearheaded the program for limited equity housing. Just before the dedication, Downing said, “Agawam is a community that many of our people would be comfortable living in. It offers a lot of supportive services, and this building is on rural property that allows our veterans to live together and do very, very well.”

Many groups involved in housing veterans are beginning to take a look at the veterans’ cooperative housing program at Solder On that promotes ownership and involvement.

To learn more about Soldier On, visit its web site at www.wesoldieron.org.

Read more articles like this in the current issue of CHQ


This article first appeared in Shelterforce.

David J. Thompson has visited Soldier On twice to learn about the progress of the limited equity cooperative model. He has worked on the California legislation and successful bond measure in 2014 which made $1 billion more available to house veterans in new ways. David is president of Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and a co-principal of Neighborhood Partners, LLC. www.npllc.org

 

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