Project to give vets a place to call home

Indianapolis Star 11/09/2012
By Jon Murray

Robert Russell Jr. stood back Thursday as government and business leaders called for several rounds of applause to honor military veterans’ service before taking shovels to the ground.

But unlike the city’s Veterans Day parade, which steps off Saturday, the groundbreaking wasn’t intended merely to make veterans feel at home.

It’s to give veterans like Russell – who has struggled to find housing for eight months – a place to call home.

In a year, the Lincoln Apartments, at 530 N. Holmes Ave. on Indianapolis’ Westside, will put a roof over the heads of 75 more veterans in search of a new start.

The nearly $12 million project, which is backed mostly by private investors, will become the city’s first permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans, according to organizers.

That means they won’t face the typical time limit of two years or less in existing transitional housing programs. They can settle in while they work with counselors to overcome substance abuse or mental-health problems and to find jobs. They will pay subsidized rent based on income.

Russell, 57, is among an estimated 700 homeless vets in Indianapolis. For him and those like him, who still struggle with problems decades after their military service, the project means hope.

Besides unemployment, the Navy veteran is trying to shake drug and alcohol abuse.

Two weeks ago, he began staying in Volunteers of America-Indiana’s Brandon Hall facility Downtown. He had shuttled between places to stay since March, he said, following personal turmoil. He also lost his job at the VA hospital.

It’s his second stint at the Volunteers of America facility. About five years ago, he arrived after his release from prison on a drug-related sentence, looking to get back on his feet.

‘They helped me out a lot,’ Russell said. ‘They got me a job, but it fell off, so they’re helping me out again.’ At the new Lincoln Apartments, Volunteers of America will coordinate two case managers and services for residents. Places such as VOA’s Brandon Hall – with one floor for veterans and two for recently released inmates – struggle to meet the demand.

In Indianapolis, the Hoosier Veterans Assistance Foundation also operates about 200 transitional housing units for veterans and their families.

But the number of homeless veterans is on the rise, said Tim Campbell, the VOA affiliate’s chief executive.

At Thursday’s ceremony, speakers including Mayor Greg Ballard and Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman said the new apartment project marked a key step in addressing the issue.

‘It’s unacceptable for our veterans to be homeless,’ said Fred Hash, an Army vet who marshaled the project as a vice president at Great Lakes Capital Fund. ‘We really want them to be a part of our community, and that’s what this is about.’ Great Lakes raised $9.8 million from banks and other investors. The city and state kicked in $800,000 from various grants, plus federal tax credits. The project also received a $500,000 Federal Home Loan Bank award through the National Bank of Indianapolis.

Building Blocks Non-Profit Housing Corp., an affiliate of Great Lakes, will own the Lincoln Apartments.

The city – at the urging of Ballard, a retired Marine – donated the land, the former site of an iron works foundry that closed 50years ago, and used several grants to clean the site of environmental hazards.

The target date for dedication of the Lincoln Apartments is Nov. 19, 2013, the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address during the Civil War.

The building will have 50 onebedroom and 25 studio units.

Russell, the Navy veteran, could be eligible for one. But he isn’t set on applying – not yet.

A year from now, he hopes to have a job that supports him enough to afford a place on his own, making room at Lincoln for another homeless vet.

‘I hope somebody else can get it,’ Russell said. ‘There’s a bunch more needed.’