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Homeless Veterans No More

Nonprofit — Soldier On — provides affordable housing, support and job training

Four years ago, Michael Shindler's home was a sleeping bag under a pine tree in a park in Pittsfield, Mass. Today, the 54-year-old Air Force veteran, recovering alcoholic and mentor to at-risk kids lives just up the street, but worlds away in his own gleaming apartment. He also owns a share of the complex and has a voice in how the place is run.

See also: Intergenerational cohousing.

A community of former homeless veterans stand in the courtyard of their development in Pittsfield, Mass.

Once homeless, these veterans now own homes in their own Pittsfield, Mass., community. — Joshua Lutz/INSTITUTE

His permanent digs are part of a newly constructed, think-outside-the-box center for homeless vets — the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community. Opened in January, this groundbreaking approach to housing is helping end homelessness for American veterans.

Shindler and 38 other former military men, average age 54, live in brand-new solar-paneled, attached units in a development that looks far more like high-end than affordable housing. Their monthly rent, which ranges from $580 to $682, is subsidized in part by a joint program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs that is designed to help find housing for homeless vets. They pay the rest of their rent with earned income, their Social Security and veterans disability benefits, or other veteran housing funds. They must also pay $2,500 to buy a limited-equity ownership in the development.

If the down payment proves too steep, local banks may lend them the money interest-free or give outright donations to Soldier On, the nonprofit that created this community and works with federal, state and local agencies to provide shelter, support and job training for homeless vets.

The $6.1 million project, built with federal, state and private foundation grants, is debt-free. Each vet receives his share of any rent money left over after the center pays for insurance, maintenance and reserves for repairs. This year, each vet will pay around $7,000 in rent and get back around $2,100. If a stakeholder decides to move or dies, Soldier On will buy back his share for $2,500.

"It's a great project," says Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs for the Department of Veteran Affairs. "It's the only one with equity shares, and their board of directors includes veterans who determine their own needs, rather than have others tell them what to do."

Already a successful model, the community is being replicated in other places. A new project for 60 homes to be built on the campus of the VA Medical Center in Northampton, Mass., just received federal funding. A similar project in Agawam, Mass., has land to build. Soldier On was recently funded for a similar project for female vets and their children, and has two more sites in mind in Massachusetts. Dougherty expects the model to expand nationwide.

Next: From homeless veteran to a homeowner. >>

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