Homeless Veterans and Affordable Housing

Veterans Go From Homeless to Homeowners—AARP

Four years ago, Michael Shindler’s home was a sleeping bag under a pine tree in a park in Pittsfield, Mass. Today, the 54-year-old Air Force veteran, recovering alcoholic and mentor to at-risk kids lives just up the street, but worlds away in his own gleaming apartment. He also owns a share of the complex and has a voice in how the place is run.

 

A community of former homeless veterans stand in the courtyard of their development in Pittsfield, Mass.

Once homeless, these veterans now own homes in their own Pittsfield, Mass., community. — Joshua Lutz/INSTITUTE

His permanent digs are part of a newly constructed, think-outside-the-box center for homeless vets — the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community. Opened in January, this groundbreaking approach to housing is helping end homelessness for American veterans.

Shindler and 38 other former military men, average age 54, live in brand-new solar-paneled, attached units in a development that looks far more like high-end than affordable housing. Their monthly rent, which ranges from $580 to $682, is subsidized in part by a joint program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs that is designed to help find housing for homeless vets. They pay the rest of their rent with earned income, their Social Security and veterans disability benefits, or other veteran housing funds. They must also pay $2,500 to buy a limited-equity ownership in the development.

The $6.1 million project, built with federal, state and private foundation grants, is debt-free. Each vet receives his share of any rent money left over after the center pays for insurance, maintenance and reserves for repairs. This year, each vet will pay around $7,000 in rent and get back around $2,100. If a stakeholder decides to move or dies, Soldier On will buy back his share for $2,500.

“It’s a great project,” says Pete Dougherty, director of homeless veterans programs for the Department of Veteran Affairs. “It’s the only one with equity shares, and their board of directors includes veterans who determine their own needs, rather than have others tell them what to do.”

Already a successful model, the community is being replicated in other places. A new project for 60 homes to be built on the campus of the VA Medical Center in Northampton, Mass., just received federal funding. A similar project in Agawam, Mass., has land to build. Soldier On was recently funded for a similar project for female vets and their children, and has two more sites in mind in Massachusetts. Dougherty expects the model to expand nationwide.

Gaining a home

“Think about it. We’ve taken people from being homeless to homeownership,” says Jack Downing, president of Soldier On. “These men and women who have served have lost everything, so to be able to reestablish their dignity and purpose and give them a place that is theirs allows them a great sense of belonging.”

Sam Bennett, 52, knows this well. The former Army tank gunner has been homeless four times since he was honorably discharged in 1981. He became a prison guard, then served time in prison for robbery, was a drug addict, and for six years lost contact with his four daughters and their mother.

But now he has a studio apartment in the Mansfield Community, furnished like most others with donated items: “It’s not a room, it’s not a shelter. It’s a wonderful feeling to say, ‘This is mine.’ When I come home, I can throw off my shoes and pick them up later or decorate any way I want. I feel normal.”

Bennett is also a certified substance abuse counselor, and earns $40,000 a year as a case manager for Soldier On “helping people just like me who have the same issues I had” at the nonprofit’s transitional shelter and treatment program. He lived there for a month while receiving treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. It also happens to be on the same property, just across a driveway, from Bennett’s new apartment. His relationship with his family now? “Beautiful!” he says.

According to Downing, one-fifth of all homeless Americans today are veterans, many of whom lack support because they have burned their bridges with relatives. Here’s why: Of the nearly 550 vets that Soldier On helps annually with emergency, transitional and permanent housing, 88 percent have substance abuse issues, and 84 percent have mental health issues.

Downing recalls that when he started at Soldier On 10 years ago, not one of the vets had any family visit them at Christmas. “It was stunning,” he says. “I’ve worked in prisons and rehabilitation centers my entire life, and never has there been a community that not only has lost so much but has been so marginalized by everyone.”

After Alan Nash came back from the Vietnam War, the now-60-year-old started drinking and “didn’t know how to get help. People were calling vets terrible things and spitting at us. I felt rejected,” he says. He lived in his car in Connecticut, going from campground to campground, until the car died one day. In 2003, Nash entered a veterans program for substance abuse, then wound up at Soldier On’s transitional shelter before snagging his one-bedroom apartment. He loves cooking for himself, and “waited for so long to have my independence back,” he says. “This is my home. It’s permanent!”

House calls

At Soldier On, Nash can also get medical, mental health and job-training services. Therapists and other professionals frequently come right to the vets’ apartments or the transitional shelter building next door. A local bank sponsors one-on-one money management sessions. When residents need to go for outside help or a job interview, a ride is available.

Since just 17 percent of the residents have driver’s licenses, “we deliver all the services they need where they live,” says Downing. “They keep their appointments and have continuity in their treatment.”

Tough love

The vets say the support they get from one another, not to mention staff, helps them battle their demons, too. “We all care about each other,” says Nash. John Woodman, 93, wearing penny loafers and jeans, agrees. “We are all people who have had a hard time in life and are like a band of brothers who have a natural affection for each other. We’ve seen things nobody should see.” A widower with a “Proud to Be an American” blanket on his bed, Woodman served in the Army during World War II and has a daughter who lives nearby. “As far as I’m concerned, this place is magic! It’s rehabilitating people who badly need it and giving them a springboard for a new life. There is freedom here and, at the same time, there is discipline.”

Residents are held accountable for their actions, but if they don’t toe the line, there is collective soul-searching rather than finger-pointing. If they skip their rent payment, for instance, the board of directors and staff will work with them to find ways to catch up and be punctual in the future. That might mean meeting with the local bank to work on their budget or come up with a payment plan or having fellow vets remind them why rent money gets paid before a flat-screen TV purchase. One thing the board doesn’t plan on doing is evicting them.

It’s a similar philosophy if a vet has an alcohol or drug relapse. Rather than play tough guy and threaten punishment or throw them out, as some programs do, “we say, ‘What haven’t we done to build a relationship of trust with you?’ ” says Downing. “We don’t see them as failures, but rather take responsibility for their failure. We’ll do whatever it takes to make them successful.”

A model

The Gordon H. Mansfield vets also run and own several businesses. A construction crew of six goes out into the community every day, and other entrepreneurial opportunities include greenhouse, vending machine and plastic assembly businesses. Technical assistance comes from Soldier On.

The group is having an impact on those outside their small military community. Shindler, who once slept in the park down the road, now talks to students at the local high school about the three things he knows best: alcoholism, homelessness and the military. “Some of the kids are on the fence,” he says. “They want to hear from someone who has been there.” Students from another school join the vets for dinner every Friday to learn about their hard-knock lives — in the hope that they’ll be discouraged from following suit. The superintendent of the Pittsfield schools has presented Shindler with a certificate of appreciation for working with students.

Shindler, who sits on the community’s board of directors, is also appreciative of Soldier On. “Without this program,” he says, “I would have continued self-medicating. If you told me when I was living in the park in 2006 that I’d be here today, and with a place of my own, I wouldn’t have believed it. I never, ever thought I would be afforded this opportunity.”

Young Entrepreneurs in the Aging Business

The age 50+ business is alive, well and thriving–and from unlikely quarters. It turns out many very young entrepreneurs are designing aging in place technology products as well as services for boomers and seniors are in their 20s and 30s!

In a piece I wrote for Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, I interviewed a now 32 year-old. At the age of 28, he created a special credit card that protects seniors from scams and unscrupulous marketers. It was his fourth start-up!

Kipling. logo

 

 

 

To read more about these whiz “kids,” take a look:

Young Entrepreneurs Fill Need in Senior Market

Start-ups focused on baby boomers and seniors strive to help keep an aging population independent and connected.

At age 32, Sherwin Sheik watched his sister, who has multiple sclerosis, search unsuccessfully for good, affordable help through home care agencies. His mother ended up leaving her job as a molecular biologist in Los Gatos, Cal., to care for her. And he knew his beloved uncle, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as ALS, had repeatedly hired agency caregivers who didn’t show up.

 Four years ago, Sheik founded the online company CareLinx, which matches families and paid caregivers. By eliminating agency fees, families save an average of $10,000 to $15,000 a year, and caregivers earn more. “Traditional agencies were charging families $25 to $30 an hour while paying caregivers $10 an hour” says Sheik, a former investment banker. Caregivers “weren’t being compensated for the hard work they did.”

Today, Sheik’s grandparents, ages 97 and 93, get daily help from caregivers hired through CareLinx. “I am delighted and proud that Sherwin is devoting himself to helping people who are at a very vulnerable stage of their lives,” says his mother, Shahla Sheik, 67.Sheik, now 37, is among a growing number of entrepreneurs in their twenties, thirties and early forties who are developing products and services for seniors. For many, the idea evolves from a personal experience with a parent, grandparent or sibling.

As astute business people, these young entrepreneurs also realize that a swelling-by-the-day older demographic will need their products to stay independent and connected. “Students from the top business schools are setting up companies in this space — something I haven’t seen before,” says Stephen Johnston, co-founder of the San Francisco-based Aging 2.0. His company mentors start-ups that focus on baby boomers and seniors.

Mary Furlong, author of Turning Silver Into Gold (FT Press, $25), agrees. “The intellectual talent and business experience of young entrepreneurs migrating into the longevity marketplace is astounding,” says Furlong, president and chief executive officer of Mary Furlong & Associates, a company in Lafayette, Cal., that advises clients in the 50-plus market.

Here’s a look at senior-focused companies that have young adults at the helm.

Caregiving. As boomers age, so will their caregiving needs. A growing number of seniors do not have children to take on caregiving tasks, and those who do tend to have fewer kids than in the past.

Sheik’s CareLinx (www.carelinx.com) gives each family an adviser to shepherd it through the hiring process and for follow-up. The firm vets caregivers, does background checks, manages the payroll and taxes, and insures and bonds the caregiver up to $1 million.

As with CareLinx, Making Care Easier (www.makingcareeasier.com), a free Web site and app, was born out of a personal crisis. At age 35, Harvard Business School graduate Renee Fry was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her mother temporarily moved across the U.S. to care for her. Three years later, the tumor grew back. This time, Julie, Renee’s younger sister, moved to Boston to take on caregiving. Julie had expertise in elder services as marketing director of a large association of home care and hospice providers.

Then the light bulb went off for the siblings, who both hold business degrees. Friends and family were willing to help, but they needed to know how. What was missing was a way to coordinate care, share information and find caregiving products, such as walkers. Making Care Easier, which was launched in April 2014, has 68,000 users. “It’s not enough to offer a way to coordinate care, but to connect you to products and services that matter to you,” says Fry.

After you fill out a brief online survey to determine your needs, the company sets up a secure family “dashboard.” You can send requests for help to friends and family members and share comments, medical information and expenses. Your private site provides checklists and joint calendars.

Finances. Kai Stinchcombe’s grandmother had always contributed to one cause or another. As her memory started to decline, though, she lost track of how much she was giving away. Stinchcombe watched the toll those bogus expenses took on his own mother.

His 93-year-old grandmother, who lives independently in Indiana, went from doling out $50 a month to $40 a day. She once wired $2,000 to a stranger who called and claimed to be “needy,” and she spent an unnecessary $6,000 on hearing aids. “She is very polite and won’t hang up the phone when someone calls,” says Stinchcombe, 32. His family didn’t want to humiliate her by taking away her bank account or credit card.

So in 2011, along with business partner Claire McDonnell, also then age 28, Stinchcombe conceived of TrueLink (www.truelinkfinancial.com). It is his fourth entrepreneurial venture.

TrueLink is a special Visa card that protects older people from scams and unscrupulous marketers. It recognizes patterns of transactions that other credit cards would permit and blocks them. Such questionable transactions include magazine subscription companies, sweepstakes and misleading deals on TV. “We weren’t looking for something in the aging market — we kind of stumbled into it,” Stinchcombe says. “We wanted to solve a problem. But we had to find out if enough people have the problem so we could build a business around it, raise venture capital and hire staff.” The answer was “yes.” Two-thirds of customers are daughters getting TrueLink for a parent.

End-of-life planning. In 2010, at age 30, Abby Schneiderman decided to create a Web site that provided articles on end-of-life planning. She noticed information sites for brides-to-be, house hunters, expectant parents, baby boomers sending kids to college, and retirees or those planning for retirement. “There was no reason this life stage didn’t deserve the same treatment,” she says. She and co-founder Adam Seifer created Everplans (www.everplans.com), which offered more than 500 articles on topics such as writing a will and appropriate attire for a funeral.

A year after starting Everplans, Schneiderman’s brother died in a car accident. “We had no access to the right paperwork and no idea what my brother would have wanted,” she says. “My family was left to make a huge number of complicated, expensive and stressful decisions at a time when we shouldn’t have had to.”

Schneiderman says she and Seifer realized that they “could create something more powerful and go beyond content to help people get a plan in place ahead of time.” They turned Everplans into a platform where people can create, store and share all the important information that their families need in one place — such as a will, advanced directives, medical records, insurance and names of advisers.

The free version provides access to certain areas of the site. For $75 a year, you can store a wider array of documents.

Communicating. The inspiration for Andreas Forsland’s company came after he spent weeks by his mother’s bedside in intensive care during the summer of 2012. She was unable to speak as a result of a breathing tube and ventilator, and she could not write, either.

Forsland says he wondered whether he could put sensors into an elegant stone she could hold or wear as a necklace or a bracelet. A swipe upward or a tap on the stone could indicate whatever preprogrammed message he chose — “I’m hungry” or “Everything is okay.” And a downward swipe or two taps might be “I miss you” or “I have to go to the bathroom.”

In 2013, Forsland, 40, who lives in Santa Barbara, Cal., co-founded Smartstones (www.smartstones.co). “We help people who are locked in,” he says. “They’re capable but can’t express themselves.” The product’s original intent was for seniors who had a stroke or a neurological disease such as ALS, but he is also finding interest from parents of children with autism.

Forsland’s mother, Sarah, 73, recovered, but she wears the prototype, a stone necklace, and uses it to “speak” daily with her son. The stones use a wireless Internet connection. “It’s beautiful and looks like jewelry,” she says. “I keep in touch with my son with a gentle swipe or tap, asking ‘Are you there?’ ” When Forsland was recently in Asia, he stayed in touch daily with his mother through their stones. Sarah says it “lowers my level of anxiety knowing I have the stone and can be in touch with Andreas without a cellphone.”

When the product comes out later this year — you can preorder on the site — you can buy a two pack for yourself and your loved one for $179, or even five stones, perhaps for grandkids or other adult siblings, for $399. Of course, Smartstones is not intended to replace conversation or the cellphone, but it is useful to convey simple messages. “We are making it easier to communicate with family, friends and care providers,” Forsland says.