Originally aired on NPR's "All Things Considered"
This month, more than a dozen homeless veterans will finally have a place to call their own thanks to the American Legion. A local Post in a small Connecticut town has been working for a decade on a unique project to create not transitional, but permanent supportive housing in their rural community.
"This is like winning the lottery, it's better than that! Really is." Army veteran Jeff MacDonald, 55, is walking through a brand new apartment in Jewett City, Connecticut. "Never did I have a house or my own place or nothing. That's why I'm always outside." He's one of fifteen homeless veterans who will live in the renovated American Legion Post. When he got the news, MacDonald says he cried. He's spent the last twenty-two years, drifting from place to place and battling alcoholism along the way. Now he's awestruck by the idea he'll have his own home. "You name it, I just bring in my clothes. A walk in closet? Cmon, I never had one. Even got the hangers for me. This is great.” The boro of Jewett City is in Southeastern Connecticut, a rural town that lost its major textile industry when the mills closed after World War II. It's a quiet community with a Main Street that's quintessential New England. Everything you need is a short walk away. A popular destination is Arremony's Bakery, just a few feet away from the American Legion Post. This is where Navy veteran, William Czmyr first hatched his idea to help homeless veterans by creating apartments for them. “There are veterans out there that are having it kind of rough. Trying to get things back together. They come out of the military and somewhere along the line they made the wrong turn.” The Legion Post in Jewett City had an abundance of space so Czmyr organized a committee ten years ago to work on raising money to renovate the building. From the very beginning, the idea was to provide permanent supportive housing where veterans could stay as long as it took for them to become independent. The location peaked the interest of the VA immediately. Dr. Laurie Harkness is Director of the VA's Errera Center in Connecticut. “Homelessness is a problem in rural areas, in Southeast Connecticut as in many rural areas in America.” The VA is in the third year of an initiative to end homelessness. But the biggest challenge remains in rural communities where the VA has had a hard time connecting with veterans. For example, it could take a veteran in Jewett City over an hour to get to one of Connecticut’s two VA hospitals. Post Commander, Mark Czmyr, William's son says this is why the Legion wanted to provide housing to veterans living in the eastern part of the state. “If they were homeless and looking for a place to live, they may have to go to New Haven, Hartford, be displaced from an area that they know. “ Federal VA housing vouchers known as HUD-VASH will pay the rent for each veteran. And caseworkers and medical staff from the VA will come to the men and women living in the building. In late June, the residents of Jewett City turned out to officially open the $6.26 million dollar renovated apartment building and American Legion Post. Laurie Harkness of VA Connecticut says Jewett City could be a model for other communities. She says ideas like this come up all the time, but this rural town has something not found in very many places. “This is the first project that I’ve ever been involved in where there was no ‘not in my background” Everybody supported it.” The uniqueness of this project garnered $200,000 in federal government funds. The American Legion also received sizable grants from the state of Connecticut as well as private donations.