A Welcome Home for Veterans
“We were just kids,” says Felton, a lifelong Lorain County resident. “You leave your hometown and you are cast into a hostile environment, serving in a war. When you come home, you are not the same person.”
Like many veterans, Felton realized he couldn’t share much of what he saw in combat with family or friends. “There are guys still walking around today, scarred and sensitive, and they just sort of lock themselves away and don’t talk about it,” he says, adding his own healing process will be a forever journey. But he got help through the Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center in Brecksville, where he attended a post-traumatic stress disorder program.
The picture for veterans can be even bleaker when they return to no home at all. Sadly, this reality is the case today for more than 62,000 veterans in the United States who are homeless on any given night. While that’s 17.2 percent fewer veterans on the streets than in 2009, according to a Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) report, the number is still too high.
Lorain County has about 25,000 veterans according to the last U.S. Census, and Felton says a few thousand more are expected to return to Lorain County from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan in the next few years.
He wonders — as do others — how many will return to no job and potentially no place to live.
Too many, if you ask Daniel Gillotti, a Vietnam veteran who’s retired from the Army. On a given night at St. Joseph Overnight Shelter, located at 317 W. 15th St. in Lorain, about 15 to 20 percent of the men and women are veterans. Gillotti is chairman of the shelter’s advisory board.
“We know, personally, that we have homeless veterans in Lorain who need our help,” says Gillotti, who also serves as chairman of Valor Home Lorain County’s bylaws committee.
Valor Home Lorain County, scheduled to open by early fall, will provide transitional housing for veteran men with 30 beds, plus workforce development training, counseling services and comprehensive support programs for veterans. It is designed to be a one-stop shop for veterans, located across the street from the Lorain County Department of Veterans Affairs Community-Based Outreach Clinic.
Securing the location for Valor Home has been somewhat of a battle in itself. But seeing the project to completion will be a sweet victory this fall, thanks to support from the county, city, donors, volunteers and Family & Community Services Inc. of Ravenna, which initially presented the idea to Lorain County Veterans Service Commission in 2009.
“Hopefully with the completion of our project, we’ll have a wonderful safe haven for those young people to come,” Felton says of Valor Home’s importance as more veterans return home to Lorain County and need support services.
A Housing Tour
Family & Community Services Inc. first presented the Valor Home concept to Lorain’s veterans commission a few years ago. The nonprofit has established Valor Homes in Portage and Trumbull counties, and is opening a 30-bed home in Akron.
“We are part of a much bigger picture in the state of Ohio,” Gillotti says. “Family & Community Services Inc. has a great track record with the VA and other government agencies for the work they have done in the past — so we were confident in their ability to help us steer this project forward.”
Valor Home Lorain County is possible because of a $474,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs Capital Grant and Per Diem Program, which will fund 65 percent of the project. The remainder must come from the community.
The grant was secured and an advisory committee formed. In spring 2012, the veterans group began fundraising and launched its Adopt-a-Room program. It was close to signing off on a location at St. Joseph Community Center — Valor Home Lorain County would operate on one floor of the building.
But these plans fell through when South Shore Community Development Corp. announced last year it would close the building, citing lack of revenue stream. City, county and state officials spent months negotiating how to sustain the center, which also houses Lorain County Community College’s Career Center, the VA outpatient clinic and other community service groups.
“We had to save St. Joe’s, or make an attempt,” Gillotti says of a support campaign that generated more than 5,000 letters that were personally delivered to the statehouse by some members of the Valor Home advisory committee and other stakeholders, including Family & Community Services Inc.
“We made presentations on why it was important to the community to save St. Joe’s,” Gillotti says, adding the location would have been perfect for Valor Home because having the VA clinic under the same roof would provide that one-stop-shop convenience for veterans.
But the problem was Valor Home needed a location that could be guaranteed for at least 15 years, a requirement of the grant. Because St. Joseph and South Shore could not promise this longevity in a contract, Valor Home Lorain County had to start over to find a home base.
In the meantime, some donors asked for their money back, and Gillotti says these requests were immediately honored. On March 28, Valor Home announced its new location and groundbreaking at 221 W. 21st St. A new and financially accessible Adopt-a-Room campaign is under way. Sponsorship opportunities are available for $2,000 and $3,000.
“We went through a very dark period, for no fault of our own,” Gillotti says. But the cloud has lifted and Valor Home Lorain County’s momentum has gained speed with a fall deadline for opening the facility.
“We are moving ahead with this new plan,” Gillotti says, noting volunteers are being recruited to assist with the building project as it quickly unfolds.
Serving Those Who Served
The timing is crucial with the opening of Valor Home. Now and in the near future, there is more need for veteran transitional housing and support services. And Valor Home fills a gap in the county, Gillotti says.
“With sequestration and downsizing in the military, there will be even more veterans coming out, and you’ve got National Guardsmen who have been going on constant rotations back and forth to Afghanistan and Irag. They’re coming back, and they have lost their jobs,” Gillotti says. “They’re trying to live on a military wage, they’re in debt, some have lost their houses and families are in disarray. We feel there will be more veterans in the next year or two who will be on the streets, so we are trying to get ahead of that as much as we can and have this service set up and running.”
But Valor Home will provide far more than a cot and three hots for
veterans. It will provide intensive case management support and access to community resources dedicated to improving self-sufficiency. Residents are expected to upgrade their employment skill sets through recertification training or adding to traditional educational credentials. Residents can draw from resources such as Lorain County Joint Vocational School and LCCC Career Center.
“Valor Home will make every effort to assist residents with finding internships and apprenticeships relative to the goals established in individuals’ development plans,” Gillotti says.
The building’s location is positioned to provide a breadth of resources for veterans. It’s a clean place where veterans can make a clean start. The services provided will help mainstream veterans back into society, Felton adds. “We want residents to leave those [drug and alcohol] problems outside and come into this facility as one of healing, health and hope,” he says.
“I am just a small part of a wonderful group of people who have been absolutely and utterly committed to seeing this project through from start to finish,” Felton says.
And now, with the new location secured and fundraising in full force, the “finish” is a palpable reality. “We are committed to bringing this project to fruition,” Felton says.