Housing veterans

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.”

sernior-housing

Elder Cohousing–AARP

Pat Darlington, 59, realized that when she got older, she didn't want to live like her 83-year-old father. It struck her when she was visiting him in Florida and realized he should no longer be driving, only to be told his neighbors had come to the same conclusion long ago. Why hadn't they let her know, the Oklahoma psychologist asked? "We didn't want to get involved," they said.
See also: Nursing home residents escape to independent living.
Their hands-off attitude became the driving force behind Darlington's decision to help createOakcreek Cohousing Community in Stillwater, Okla. Across the country, senior cohousing, like the one Darlington is planning, is turning into an increasingly popular option for baby boomers and older adults. In these communities, a group shares a property, lives in condos or attached homes clustered together, and shares some weekly dinners, outdoor space and facilities.
On the grounds is a common house, a feature of all cohousing projects, containing a kitchen for preparing communal meals or potluck, a dining and living room, and other rooms, depending on what the group wants. Options might include a media room, an office, a workshop with a kiln, or a fitness or art studio — but the common house always has two or three bedrooms for guests and caregivers, should aging residents need them.
The social interaction often extends beyond the property. If someone wants to go to the movies, for a hike or to the theater, they can send out an e-mail or ask around. There's always an instant buddy, or the space to be alone.
People in Darlington's world are buying into the concept of elder cohousing. So far, at Oakcreek, 12 one- and two-bedroom houses costing $150,000 to $265,000 have been spoken for by residents ages 57 to 84; the group needs to find another eight people to commit to houses so it can break ground this June.
Great expectations
When she reaches her dad's age, Darlington expects to be surrounded by loving, supportive neighbors. She hopes never to be in assisted living or a nursing home — or at least to stay at home as long as possible.
Darlington has seen, firsthand, the life she doesn't want. "I have patients with a ton of money,long-term care insurance and round-the-clock caregivers, and they sit in their lovely homes bored and lonely," says Darlington, a widow whose four children are scattered around the country. "I saw my dad isolated in his own house and that is not how I want to spend the rest of my life. When you go to a financial adviser, you're told to have a diversified portfolio. Cohousing is my social portfolio," she says. "Some people say, 'Why are you doing this? You're only 59.' I want to invest inrelationships now so that when I need help, I will already have them. We have choices and don't have to do 'aging' the way it has always been done."
Not that trailblazing boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, would settle for the status quo anyway. They watch their parents decline in institutional settings or cut off from society and vow not to wind up like that. "People are creatively and proactively saying that there are options that might be better," says California architect Charles Durrett, who, along with his wife, Kathryn McCamant, brought the idea of cohousing from Denmark to the United States in the late 1980s. "The trend of senior cohousing is just getting started."
Next: More than 100 cohousing communities nationwide. >>
'Senior' housing appeals to boomers, too
Don't be fooled by the word "senior." Many opting for this arrangement are in their 50s, 60s and early 70s and often still work. They're in good health when they move in. The plan is that when they get sick, there will be lots of helping hands, which will supplement, although not replace, professional help if needed.

Multigenerational cohousing, where families with young children live with residents of all ages, has been around awhile; there are more than 100 of these mixed-age communities nationwide. But senior cohousing (often age 50-plus) is the new kid on the block. So far, there are five such projects, in California, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, with 15 more being planned.

Both kinds of cohousing, intergenerational and senior — sometimes called elder cohousing — are attracting boomers. At Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colo., just two of the 16 units have turned over since it opened three years ago (one death, one change of heart), and they've both been snapped up by couples in their early 60s. The rest of their group ranges from their mid-50s to their 80s. Having a broad age span ensures that people will age at different times, and there will always be those who can work, whether it's preparing a meal, tending the common garden or sitting on a committee.
Less is more
Many boomers are empty nesters ready to downsize and age in place. They like the balance between privacy and rich social interaction, and the idea of going green — both environmentally and fiscally. Cohousing residences are typically 60 percent smaller than an average new American home, occupy 30 percent less land and use 50 to 70 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a resident's previous home. Having houses attached preserves outside space and reinforces a sense of community. The 20 to 30 units might be lined up on both sides of a walkway with their front porches facing one another, for example, or maybe grouped around a courtyard. Sharing resources reduces individual costs.
Next: Residents are in complete control. >>
Durrett, author of The Senior Cohousing Handbook, estimates that an individual household can save as much as $70,000 (and gain a 4,500-square-foot common house) in a low-market, 20-unit cohousing community and $337,5000 in a high-market project. Of course, it depends on the condo, amenities and setup desired.
The nuts and bolts
The biggest draw, though, is that residents are in complete control. They make their own rules and reach decisions by consensus. They can decide to cook a communal meal or weed the shared garden themselves. Or the group might opt for potluck rather than take turns whipping up dinners, or choose to hire a gardener instead.
They can join at any stage, including after the project is completed, but those involved from the start usually find the land, and always work closely with the architect plus the developer, contractor, town zoning board or bank. An emerging field of cohousing specialists — architects, developers, consultants — is walking newbies through the complicated and time-consuming process of creating a community from scratch.
Susan Burwen, 64, says creating elder cohousing in Silicon Valley's Mountain View, Calif., is as demanding as any paid 40-hour-a-week job. The group wanted its site to be within walking distance of public transportation, restaurants, a performing arts center, a library and a farmers market, knowing that as they age, they will be driving less. (Cohousing residents drive 60 percent less than those in single-family housing.) In 2009, after a three-year hunt, Burwen found a little over an acre in downtown Mountain View with a farmhouse.
The farmhouse will be used for guests and eventually caregivers, and they're planning to construct a three-story building with 19 condo-style units designed by Durrett. Unlike most projects, where the common house is a separate building, theirs will be under the same roof as the residences. Gathering nooks, gardens and pedestrian walkways will be bountiful, as will the we're-all-in-this-aging-business-together spirit.
In the 1960s, as a newly married couple, Burwen and her husband, David, lived in a run-down Victorian near Boston with a bunch of students. "The key was that we all had enough private space and our own friends and we also had shared space and lots of wonderful, spontaneous interactions," she recalls. Now with their two sons grown, the Burwens are hoping to recapture that dynamic, without the shabby digs of yesteryear; units at Mountain View will sell for $750,000 to $1.25 million. They hope to move in two years from now. "We didn't know one another when we started and we are already a very bonded group," says Burwen.
Next: A self-selecting process >>
The bond
One reason that neighbors-to-be meet at least twice a month to work on the project, as well as attend monthly potluck suppers, is so they know one another well before they move in. Those dinners include prospective residents who want a taste of the cohousing concept. If they decide it takes too much time (around two to three years) or involvement, or don't like the group, they don't commit; a few bow out along the way, or even after they've lived there.
"It's a self-selecting process," maintains DeAnne Butterfield, 59, who moved to Silver Sage with her husband, John Huyler, 65, three years ago, after their daughter graduated from high school. "We looked at each other and said, we don't need the space or upkeep of our 4,000-square-foot four-bedroom house. What are we doing here?" says Butterfield.
They both love their new community's diversity: Six out of 16 units are designated as affordable housing; residents are both working and retired, include a botanist, electrical engineer, grocery store clerk and city councilor. They have couples, widows, divorcees and never-marrieds. The community has Christians, Quakers — some Quakers consider themselves Christian, some don't — Jews, atheists and Buddhists.
Butterfield is on the finance and legal committee, while Huyler, a professional mediator, sits on community development, which covers interpersonal relationships.
Squabbles?
Of course, residents can get on each other's nerves or have conflicts. And what if they do?

"We can always go home and pull down the blinds. But I think we're all committed to not burying our disagreements and issues," says Richard Brumleve, 72, who lives in a two-bedroom townhouse-type unit at ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Va. Among the 29 units are 16 rentals that fetch $360 to $505 a month. Owner units range from $150,000 to $165,000, but can be more or less, since the seller determines the price.
Next: 'We treasure each other.' >>
Brumleve, a retired English teacher who moved with his wife from Springfield, Ill., to Abingdon after reading a newspaper article about ElderSpirit, loves the discussions there on spirituality and aging. "We're not afraid to talk about preparing to die or illness or the lessening of our abilities to do things," Brumleve says. For now, like the others around him, he is adding to his abilities and has taken up watercolor painting. He shares part of a studio in the common house with a resident who is a professional painter.
The recession hasn't helped cohousing, since most of the projects are new construction, and banks are skittish about lending money. Some planned communities have folded and others have been postponed. It's hard to sell a house in this market to buy another. Cohousing consultant Abraham Paiss predicts that developers may begin initiating more of these communities. "I think senior cohousing is really going to grow in this country," says Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Company, the largest U.S. developer of cohousing and a resident of Silver Sage.
"I realize that the more you get to know people and their lives," says Butterfield, who is Leach's neighbor, "the more you want to be with them. I think I can speak for everyone here. We treasure each other."
For more on senior cohousing, contact:
• The Cohousing Association of the United States lists resources and sponsors cohousing bus tours plus the National Cohousing Conference from June 15 to 19 in Washington, D.C.

• The Cohousing Company.

Older adults are renovating to stay at home

Homeowners Get Ready to Age In Place —WSJ

Bill and Betsy Owens recall the growing concerns they had about their house—built in 1876—in Powell, Ohio. They loved the 12-foot ceilings, the circular stairway and the formal parlor. But when the couple thought about the future, the home’s steep steps and narrow doorways meant “it wasn’t very livable,” says Mr. Owens, age 57.

So, three years ago, the Owens built an addition. Now there are no steps from the driveway into their new kitchen and great room. A control pad with smart technology turns lights on and off, and three-foot-wide doorways offer easy access for a grandchild in a stroller or, if the Owens should need it, a walker or wheelchair.

“Our homes aren’t aging as well as we are,” says Mr. Owens, a Columbus, Ohio, contractor.

Older adults are renovating to stay at homeCall it a baby-boom building boom. Hoping to remain in their homes and communities as they age—but recognizing that living spaces can become unsafe and difficult to navigate—people in their 50s and beyond are retrofitting houses, building additions or constructing new digs with age-friendly features.

“You have to design for a ‘you’ that doesn’t exist yet,” says Louis Tenenbaum, a Rockville, Md., contractor and founder of the Aging in Place Institute, a nonprofit that educates businesses and consumers about aging in place.

The big picture is worrisome. A recent study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University found that less than 25% of homeowners age 55-plus have a bedroom and full bathroom on the first floor of their homes, a way to get into the house without steps, and no steps between rooms—universal design features that make life easier for all ages.

Remodeling can be pricey. But given the high cost of care in an assisted-living facility or nursing home, such improvements can make sense, experts say.

“People have a financial plan, an estate plan and an insurance plan. How about a frailty or disability plan?” asks Mary Tuuk, a

geriatrician in Denver.

Here is a look at three families who have taken the plunge.

Say goodbye to steps

Two years ago, Frank Briber made the case to his wife, Fran Pollitt: He was no longer willing to live in Fryeburg, Maine. The town has no public transportation, and Portland, the nearest big city, is 90 minutes away. “Rural Maine is a tough place to live as you grow older,” says Mr. Briber, 65, a retired banker.

The pair decided to move to Wayland, Mass., a Boston suburb. They bought Ms. Pollitt’s mother’s house, tore it down and are building a brick, French-chateau-style home.

“We’ve seen our parents get old,” Mr. Briber says. “We want to make it as easy as possible as we enter those years.” For the couple, that means minimal upkeep and no-hassle navigating.

When the house is completed in the first half of next year, it will have a gently sloped walkway—really a ramp with landscaping on both sides to disguise it—to the step-free door. The pair’s master bedroom and bath will be on the main level. The powder room will have a wide door, grab bars that look like elegant towel bars, and a vanity with space below for a walker.

When their adult children (each has two from a prior marriage) and the grandchildren visit, their quarters will be upstairs.

Mr. Briber doesn’t want to worry about mowing, so he’s creating a meadow with wildflowers. And then there is the backyard. “We could have had beautiful tiered terraces,” says Ms. Pollitt, 61, “but we can’t be going up and down steps all the time.” It, too, will be sloped with few stairs.

The couple expects to spend $3 million. The hefty price is less the result of its age-friendly features than of high-end finishes and materials. (It will be a passive-energy house—one designed to use far less energy than the typical home.) Still, if they ever have to sell, Mr. Briber says, “there are enough retired people who would buy this house in a second. There are very few homes designed with aging in place in mind.”

The bathroom gets an upgrade

Sally Evans, 67, and Brian Rodgers, 66, adore their Bellaire, Texas, townhouse and want to live there “for 20 or 30 more years,” says Ms. Evans.

But their small master bathroom had turn faucets, a deep, treacherous bathtub, a narrow 24-inch-wide door, and a step-up shower with sliding glass doors. 

Not today. The door was expanded 10 inches, and the new vanity is raised, making it gentler on the back. The couple nixed the tub and installed lever faucets. (“It’s a lot easier to use,” says Ms. Evans, “and arthritis runs in my family.”) There is also a curbless walk-in shower with a teak fold-up chair.

Oh yes, and five grab bars.

“Even though we don’t need them now, we thought, ‘Why not put them in and be ready?’ ” says Ms. Evans, a public-relations consultant. “Brian and I are in good shape and work out five days a week, so I’m amazed at how much I use the grab bars. I don’t want to take the chance of falling.” She finds the grab bar with a hand-held shower head on it “cool.”

It cost $32,500 to retrofit their bathroom; age-friendly items added just $2,000 to the tab.

No bending, no tripping

The four bedrooms in the Owens’s 19th-century home are an 18-step climb from the first floor.

“Life has a way of throwing you curveballs. It’s a pretty big deal if something were to happen now or in 20 years,” says Mr. Owens.

So the Owens looked around and decided that if they ever need a bedroom on the first floor, it will be their parlor. A full bathroom that’s already nearby makes them golden. 

Today, there are no steps anywhere on the first floor and expansive spaces to move about. “As soon as you walk through the door, you know something is different,” Mr. Owens says.

To prevent tripping, the rugs and entry mat in the new space are recessed into the hardwood floor. The wood is good for walking and wheelchairs, holds up well, and is easy to maintain. A heated-tile floor, great for cold mornings, is also flush with the hardwood in another area.

Kitchen counters have variable heights for sitting (if a person wishes to sit, or if someone is in a wheelchair) and standing. Upper cabinets are few; that helps eliminate heavy lifting, reaching for items, and potentially falling. Drawers and doors underneath the counter close automatically, requiring no hand strength.

Rather than bend down to reach plugs, the couple put outlets at least 18 inches off the floor. A keyless entry means one less thing to worry about, too.

About one-third of the $170,000 price tag for the addition (which would have run $220,000 if Mr. Owens wasn’t in the building business) was spent on age-friendly features, but guests and family of all ages are benefiting. He points out that his three children, ages 17 to 23, will “especially appreciate the no-step entry if they blow out their knees skiing!”