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WAMC Housing Series Part 5: Veteran Homelessness

WAMC News has been looking into the state of housing in the Northeast. In the fifth part of our series, WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne takes a look at how one nonprofit organization in Dutchess County is working to help veterans get off the street and back on their feet.

Army veteran Michael Odell has lived at Liberty Station in the City of Poughkeepsie for more than a year.

“I was in Germany homeless for two years before I came home. The most important thing was to get my job back from Mid-Hudson Works,” Odell says. “I’m satisfied with my job and my housing right now, and I’ve had the opportunity to help veterans, and I can see how much the vets have been helping me out, and specifically Hudson River Housing.”

Odell, who had been living in the Poughkeepsie area, was going back and forth to Germany, where he has children, and now grandchildren, a transatlantic commute that led to instability.

“I was sleeping on the streets; I was sleeping on the sidewalk; I was sleeping on, anywhere, somebody’s house on the floor, just to get over the night, and then the next day came and you have to go through the same thing all over again,” Odell says.

He appreciates Hudson River Housing’s supportive environment.

“With the homelessness, that put me through some kind of depression where I got to definitely find, get some kind of mental advice or to talk to somebody because I’m still in hat hole of mine that I’m not able to get out,” Odell says. “So I’m just glad when I go to work. That’s my life right now, come home and have somewhere, roof over my head.”

Veterans at Liberty Station live in private rooms. There are shared kitchen and bath facilities, a common area and library. Ed Reid, senior case manager for Hudson River Housing, works with veterans, and helped Odell secure his job.

“Mike is being a bit humble, but he went from completely homeless, and homeless without hope, to now at a point where he’s got a job at Mid-Hudson Works, or Dutchess Works, and he’s not just an employee there, he’s now the head of shipping and receiving there,” Reid says.

Hudson River Housing’s three-story Liberty Station has served as a veteran home since 2014. Reid said it filled quickly.

“When we were a part of the Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which is a federally funded grant program, we identified the need for single-room housing because not everybody was going to be able to afford an apartment and, in some cases, not everybody was able to take care of an apartment,” says Reid. “So now, the idea for this came up and literally within, I’d say, maybe two months, two-and-half months after it opened, it was full.”

“How many rooms?” Dunne asks.

“Twenty-six, full,” says Reid.

He says Liberty Station is considered permanent housing, and has had a positive impact on the community, reducing veteran homelessness in Dutchess County. Yet the award-winning supportive living program was in danger when in 2017 the Veterans Administration denied an annual half-a-million dollar grant that helped sustain Liberty Station. Hudson River Housing, through outreach and donations, kept Liberty Station going. Again, Odell:

“And, for me, I’m just grateful what I’ve become and the help I’ve been getting,” Odell says. “And I never want to be homeless again because you think things that you don’t normally think or got to do things or live a different way than you’re used to just to survive. The most important is not give up and just keep fighting for it.”

At the mention of the name Tommy Zurhellen, Odell had an immediate reaction.

“Can’t say anymore, I mean, he’s like almost a veteran god to me,” Odell says. “Because every time I’m looking on Facebook, he’s doing another thing for the vets. There’s no words I can say there, I mean, he’s a heck of a nice guy.”

Zurhellen is an associate professor of English at Poughkeepsie’s Marist College. Instead of spending his second sabbatical writing his fourth novel, he decided to walk across America and raise awareness about veteran suicide and homelessness. During his April sendoff, Zurhellen, a Navy veteran who is commander of the Poughkeepsie VFW, had a goal.

“The goal is $40,387, which is the average number of homeless veterans on the street. But it all starts with awareness,” says Zurhellen. “People just don’t know, and we think we’re taking care of our veterans, thank you for your service and all these kinds of things, but we’re really not taking care of our veterans and people need to realize that, and, once they do, I think great things are going to happen.”

It turns out he exceeded that goal, with money going to two nonprofit organizations — the Vet 2 Vet peer mentoring program and Hudson River Housing.  His walk began in Portland, Oregon in mid-April and ended at the end of August across Walkway Over the Hudson to Marist College, where he received a formal welcome home, starting with the Marist Singers and Band.

On the VetZero Walk Across America, Zurhellen's goal was to travel an average of 22 miles each day, to recognize the Department of Veterans Affairs statistic that every day in the U.S., 22 veterans take their own lives.

“I learned a lot while I walked across the country, give or take 2,800 miles. I learned what it meant to be a homeless veteran, and it was not pretty the experience I had. It’s really expensive to be homeless in America today. I had no idea,” says Zurhellen. “And all the stereotypes that we use when you see somebody outside the supermarket or something like that. They really don’t apply. I’ve been a homeless veteran for the last four months, and I’ve learned so much. And, hopefully, I’m never going to take what I have for granted again. I think that’s the biggest takeaway I have.”

VetZero is the official veteran service project of VFW Post 170 in Poughkeepsie, aiming to eliminate veteran suicides and homelessness in the community.

“Walking across the country, people asked me, it must have been so hard walking 22 miles. And it turns out walking 22 miles a day is not the hard part. It’s not the hard part anymore. It’s the mental part. It’s getting up and doing it every day,” Zurhellen says. “And I could have gone home anytime. I was pretending at this thing, but I didn’t. But there’s so many people out there who can’t pretend, who can’t go home because they don’t have a home. So, although this is the end of the walk, this is definitely not the end of what we’re going to be doing for our veterans here in Poughkeepsie.”

Back to Mike Odell. He was mugged in Poughkeepsie in May. He had his teeth knocked out and suffered head injuries. Odell met Zurhellen at a VFW picnic over the summer. It turned out that Zurhellen helped find a pro-bono dentist. Plus Odell had support from Hudson River Housing. He even got prescription glasses.

Elizabeth Purinton-Johnson is a department chair and associate professor of marketing at Marist College. She was inspired by Zurhellen’s walk, and first learned of Liberty Station through Zurhellen. Purinton-Johnson knits, producing many items for charity.

“And I thought, why am I knitting things and mailing them out across the country when we have a need right here," Purinton-Johnson says. "And so it occurred to me to create a new effort, and that is to collect hand-knit, hand-crocheted items for the veterans at Liberty Station, so, in particular, hats and scarves and gloves and mittens and things that will help them through the cold weather.”

She put out the word at Marist, conducted knitting circles and often found bags of donated yarn at her office door.

“And I got thinking about people who live in the City of Poughkeepsie and don’t have a car. They’re doing a lot of walking around, and it’s cold out there,” says Purinton-Johnson. “And, at the same time, I think there’s a certain comfort in having an item that’s hand-knit by somebody. So the idea was to warm their bodies but also to warm their hearts, knowing that somebody was thinking about them while they created the item.”

The finished products were heading to Liberty Station before Christmas. Navy veteran Steven Thompson had been homeless on and off. He began living at Liberty Station in late 2016. He was wary at first, but now…

“I have no plans for leaving; toe-tagging it out of here,” Johnson says. “It’s a very nice place. It’s nicer than some rooming houses. I mean, we’ve got a great big double kitchen in there. I cook. When I first came here, these two were going nuts because I lived in the kitchen. I cooked all the time. It just smelled like a restaurant up in here.”

But after a while, he says depression set in. He was sitting in his room with nothing to do, no money, so he began volunteering and things started to look up. Thompson says a place like Liberty Station allows veterans to start with the basics.

“You need places like this where they can get in and get their head back together for a few, because you do need the creature comforts of life,” Thompson says. “You need cool, you need heat, you need running water, okay. You need somewhere to lay your head down at night besides the floor. So that’s what this provides right here.”

Thompson just got a new job, part-time, with Hudson River Housing. As for his income…

“Most of it goes to rent, just like anybody else. Even though they got it on a scale, it can get expensive still because they want 30 percent to live here,” Thompson says.

“Which would be what? Do you mind if I ask?” says Dunne.

“Right now, because I’m only part time, I’m paying $360,” says Thompson. “I used to be the manager of the Lunch Box right next door, and then my rent was $700.”

Thompson believes government needs to cut through red tape and play a bigger role in helping homeless veterans.

“There should be a hierarchy or, however you want to phrase it. Those who serve, yes, and then you got single mothers, yes,” says Thompson. “Veterans are entitled to some priorities, especially the ones, unfortunately, well, I’m glad, I don’t know… I was in during peacetime. Wartime vets should even be ahead of me, as far as homelessness goes.”

Mike Odell also sees a hierarchy.

“There’s a lot of them sleeping on the streets right now which I shouldn’t see. There shouldn’t be a reason anybody who’s a vet should be sleeping on the street,” says Odell. “I mean, they have so many other programs for so many other things that I think that the vets should be counted as number one.” 

Hudson River Housing’s Ed Reid:

“Veterans, although they may not, in some cases, voice it, they feel entitled and they are entitled to a bit of preferential treatment when it comes to homelessness because of the sacrifice they made,” Reid says. “And I always say, sometimes when I’m giving a talk at an occasion or a kind of event, I always say that whether a veteran has served in combat or never left the States, the one thing that they do share, other than the fact that they are part of the military, or were part of the military, is the fact that when they signed on the dotted line to serve their country, they agreed to put themselves in harm’s way. And they came into the service knowing that there was a possibility that they could, in fact, be put in harm’s way and shipped to some foreign shore to fight a war. And that makes them stand apart from society in general.”

Reid says women could live at Liberty Station, but Hudson River Housing has low-cost housing for female veterans elsewhere in Poughkeepsie.

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