On the campaign trail, there’s been a lot of talk about helping veterans get jobs.
But in a two-story brownstone on Gifford Street in Syracuse, a small team of dedicated professionals is actually making it happen.
The Veterans Residential Program is run by Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment funded by the Veterans Administration. The program is based on Father Peter Young’s “three-legged stool” program: provide veterans with treatment for their issues, whether they are related to substance abuse, mental health or something else; give them a place to live; and help them get vocational training and find a job. Once they have all of those, they will land on their feet. The program, which has been in existence for over 50 years, has homes from Buffalo to New York City.
“A lot of our veterans are homeless these days and don’t know which way to go, don’t know how to reintegrate into society,” said Rembert Lane, executive director of the Syracuse facility. “That’s what we do. We try to help them make that transition successfully, tell them there’s a better way they can do it. They don’t have to isolate and do other things — you don’t have to drink, you don’t have to drug, you just have to stay connected.”
In order to be eligible for the program, veterans must be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. They have to have received an honorable or a general discharge from the army and be enrolled in the VA. Anyone with substance abuse issues must have been sober for 30 days before entering the program.
Eligible vets are referred to Lane by VA social worker Mary Driscoll.
“This is an opportunity for folks who have been homeless and who are still not quite on their feet yet to spend up to two years with us in housing,” Driscoll said. “And during that time, we’ll do whatever it takes to get them on their feet. Whatever they bring with them as far as issues is what we work on. It’s very individualized. Folks who have substance abuse issues automatically go into substance abuse counseling. Those who don’t, don’t. But whatever it is that caused them to become homeless in the first place is the kind of thing that we look to resolve.”
Originally, the program was housed at LeMoyne Manor in Liverpool. However, the 12-bed space was too small. Lane, who is himself a veteran, and his staff moved the program to 414 and 420 Gifford Street, which offers 24 beds, this past January.
“The manor might seem big, but it was crowded,” Lane said. “We didn’t have any space. Now we’ve got more space. We’ve got a big yard. We’re looking to put a flagpole in front of the building. We’ve got a lot of motivated soldiers there. It’s just awesome.”
Veterans can stay at the Gifford Street house for up to two years, though if they’re doing well, they can apply for an extension. Once they’re ready to move into independent housing, other local agencies pitch in to give them a hand. Local American Legion posts recently conducted a drive to collect Buddy Baskets, baskets of household goodies that the vets could use in their new homes.
Alice Bigelow spearheaded the drive through Liverpool American Legion Ladies Auxiliary Unit 188 in the village.
“I saw the idea at one of our Plan of Actions that we have through the auxiliary. They were doing it down south, and I liked the idea,” Bigelow said. “So I thought this would be a good project to bring all the units together — something small, but they feel like they’re doing something. Usually, everything’s so big, and these ladies can’t donate $100 or something, but they can go out and buy an extra cleaning product and bring it to the post and put their basket all together. That’s basically how it came about.”
Unit 188 spread the word to other Ladies Auxiliary posts throughout Onondaga County, and they began collecting goods for the men at the veterans’ home. Posts in Cicero, Eastwood, Manlius, North Syracuse, Skaneateles and Syracuse all donated baskets of goods, which include things like cleaning products, key chains, household goods and more.
“Once these guys are ready to move into their own apartment, they help them get into the apartment and whatnot,” Bigelow said. “With the Buddy Baskets, we give them cleaning supplies and things they’d never think to buy for themselves.”
Lane said the donations were so much more to the men at the home than just a few cleaning products.
“The American Legion, this is awesome,” he said. “They are all in need. When they do transition, they don’t have much money. It’s a new place they’re trying to move into, and they don’t have anything. When we get donations like this, it’s a great help. It’s a great support. It shows that, ‘Listen, we are here for you. We do love you.’ It’s support, and we all need support. It’s truly a blessing. It’s a godsend.”
Lane said there are numerous other groups that work with the home to aid the veterans.
“We do a lot of outreach,” he said. “We reach out to community churches. Inside our house, we have a computer lab for the veterans. We just newly renovated this building. We’re in a serious transition, but it’s coming along very well, thanks to the American Legion and these different churches. One of them is the Eastern Hills Bible Church that helps in our house. We’ve got another place — we have Clear Path for veterans where we have a drop-in center for veterans that we coordinate and we do outside work with them. Also, there’s a group that we do work with called Healing Waters that takes the veterans fishing. We have a lot of activities for the veterans. We don’t just want them sitting around, laying around, not doing nothing. We try to help them become productive members of society and help them to grow.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.