For veterans, home and a community in Bedford
Three times a week, Jim Bancroft makes dinner for two neighbors and himself, following recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother, tested on his kids after his divorce, and put aside when he was homeless and couch surfing, or living in a shelter.
It’s a pleasure the 56-year-old US Air Force veteran could not have imagined before mid-June when he moved into one of 69 new, furnished, one-bedroom apartments at 100 Pride Way, on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs medical center in Bedford.
“To come from nothing, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, and be here,” Bancroft says, folded into a comfortable chair in the lobby of Bedford Green. “There are no words to thank them.”
Sitting opposite are Michael Kaminsky, 90, and Arland Reynolds, 71, Bancroft’s new friends and dining companions. Kaminsky, who uses a walker, lives on the first floor. Reynolds and Bancroft have third floor units.
“This is great. This is a palace. It’s paradise,” says Kaminsky, who dropped out of high school to join the Army and served in the 42d and 66th divisions during the Second World War.
Across the housing market, adult communities are burgeoning. But it took two Massachusetts companies, developer Peabody Properties Inc. and builder Windover Construction, in partnership with the VA and a group of investors, to produce a development just for veterans over the age of 55.
Peabody and Windover previously completed two affordable housing developments for homeless veterans without age restrictions: a 32-unit building in Beverly and a 62-unit building in Lyons, N.J., both opened in 2013. They’re also the developers behind a 14-unit project in Brockton, now under construction on 32 acres near the entrance to the VA medical center.
Concerns about about homelessness among veterans isn’t new. During his first term in office, President Obama pledged to end veteran homelessness within five years.
But traditional approaches haven’t often worked. Shelters and transitional housing are costly and inefficient; homeless veterans tend to cycle through a system that inevitably lands them back on the streets.
“We asked, ‘What can we do differently? How can we underwrite this?” says Betsy Collins, vice president of development for the Braintree-based Peabody Properties Inc. “The VA was helping homeless veterans but not addressing the chronically homeless.”
It wasn’t just lack of housing that was a problem, Collins said. Some homeless veterans were struggling with substance abuse. Others were suffering from PTSD and other medical conditions. And almost everyone who had been homeless required ongoing support.
“A good developer asks, ‘Who do you want to be living in your building? What would they want?’” Collins said. “These should go hand in hand.”
And so Peabody, working with the Beverly builder Windover Construction, developed not only a new model but also a means of underwriting it: a collaboration including private investors who purchased low-income housing tax credits, the VA, state and federal agencies, and banks.
In turn, the rules-and-regulations bound VA gave the more nimble developer and builder the latitude they requested.
“They allowed us to use our experience, our expertise, to create the building and the service program,” says Collins, describing a project with a revenue stream to support case management and building services. “For a true public-private enterprise, this was important.”
Veterans living at Bedford Green receive one-on-one counseling and support from a VA case manager who has an office in the building, as well as “resident services” from a licensed social worker, also based in the building and employed by the development company.
Resident services include everything from calling the campus van to drive a tenant to an appointment or grocery store, to calling a repair person to deal with a maintenance problem. In addition, tenants are a short walk or ride from medical services, a large fitness center, and daily classes, including pottery, cooking, several types of yoga, and tai chi.
As of Aug. 1, 55 of the 69 units at Bedford Green, each rented at 30 percent of a tenant’s income, set by the government housing subsidy known as Section 8, were occupied, and the remaining 14 had been rented.
The three-story, Georgian-style building is located on roughly five acres of the 180-acre medical center campus, overlooking woods and the nine-hole Patriot Golf Course — a short walk to doctors’ appointments, recreational programs, classes, and walking trails leading into town.
A hundred years ago, the property was farmland and the site of the town’s poor house. Since the late 1920s, when the medical center was built, it has housed the sprawling campus of the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital, nationally known for its expertise in geriatric medicine.
In the lobby on a sunny July morning, several veterans are relaxing in easy-chairs. Michael Kaminksy holds a book on his knees, his walker within reach. Arland Reynolds, wearing his “Can Do,” Seabees cap, sits nearby, an attentive listener.
US Marine Corps veteran Stephen Lindquist, 59, dressed for a game of golf, stops to say hello. So does Elva Alvarado, a 59-year-old Navy veteran who is headed to the gym across the street.
When she was homeless, Alvarado slept in her car outside a Wal-Mart at Hampton Beach.
Lindquist, who spent nine years without a permanent residence, says the VA saved his life.
For others, moving into an apartment here was better than winning Megabucks.
Everything is new. The staff is kind. And almost overnight, the once-homeless veterans have become a family of friends.