Syracuse’s homeless veterans get a place of their own

Syracuse’s homeless veterans get a place of their own (video)

James T. Mulder | By James T. Mulder |
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on May 29, 2014 at 12:30 AM, updated May 29, 2014 at 12:44 AM
Syracuse, N.Y. – After living on the street, in jails and emergency shelters for 10 years, Ralph “Sonny” Carelli recently moved into his own apartment at a new housing development in Syracuse for homeless veterans.
Carelli, 50, a Navy veteran who served in the first Gulf War, also known as Desert Storm, spent last summer sleeping near the railroad tracks behind a Burger King restaurant on South Salina Street. He now sleeps in a Stickley bed in a furnished one-bedroom apartment at VanKeuren Square at 2223 E. Genesee St. In February, he became one of the first veterans to move in.
“I thank God for the opportunity to be a resident here,” Carelli said. “By all means, I should be dead.”

Homeless Veterans find a new home in Syracuse
VanKeuren Square, a 50-unit apartment building for homeless veterans is located at 2223 E. Genesee Street. It was built on the site of what was once the Jewish Community Center. Syracuse’s VA Medical Center and Housing Visions will officially dedicate the new housing development on Friday May 30, 2014. Navy and Desert Storm veteran Ralph Carelli was homeless since 2004 until becoming a resident of VanKeuren Square. Stephen D. Cannerelli |

Carelli is one of 41 veterans living in the $11.5 million, 50-unit project built by Housing Visions, a nonprofit development company that has revitalized housing on the city’s East Side, in cooperation with the Syracuse VA Medical Center. It is the first housing development in Syracuse earmarked for homeless veterans that has on-site support services from the VA.
The building will be dedicated at an 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday.
It is named after Robert Van Keuren of Canandaigua, co-founder of the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans. Van Keuren is a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who logged more than 200 combat missions in 1969 and 1970. After the war, Van Keuren ended up homeless and abused alcohol and drugs. He subsequently became a national advocate for other homeless veterans.
Van Keuren told in a 2012 interview he hopes the new apartments make good on the commitment soldiers make to comrades wounded in battle.

“You don’t leave anybody outside the wire,” he said. “You go after them regardless of the cost.”
The VA launched a major national effort in 2009 to end homelessness among veterans. The agency estimates veterans make up 12 percent of the U.S. adult homeless population. A survey conducted earlier this year showed there were 62 homeless veterans in Onondaga County.
Many homeless vets suffer from the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Carelli, who grew up in Clay, had trouble adjusting to civilian life after serving in the Navy from 1988 to 1992. His marriage fell apart and he began abusing drugs and alcohol. “Since I came home, I have a track record of jails, rehabs and broken family relationships,” Carelli said. “It goes on and on.”
He was recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead of dealing with that issue early on, Carelli said he self-medicated.
In October Carelli decided he wanted to change his life. “I got tired of being me,” he said. He’s been sober six months. He lived in the Syracuse Rescue Mission for four months before moving into VanKeuren Square.
What he likes best about his apartment is it has a front door, a lock and a key. “I have not lived alone in my own place for years,” he said.
The project was funded with a combination of low income housing tax credits, government money and private financing from M&T Bank.
The Syracuse Housing Authority is providing 25 federal Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers to help subsidize some of the tenants’ rents. Rent – including utilities — for veterans who qualify for the vouchers is 30 percent of their income. Monthly rent for veterans without vouchers ranges from $390 to $490. The apartments are available only to veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The project is being dedicated at a time when the VA is under fire nationwide for covering up long patient wait times at some of its facilities. The VA is reviewing all of its hospitals and clinics, including the Syracuse VA, to see if they are scheduling patient appointments correctly. Findings of that review are not available yet, said Robert McLean, a spokesman for the Syracuse VA. He said Syracuse VA officials are confident their operation complies with VA policies governing patient access to care. The Syracuse VA has some of the highest patient satisfaction scores in the VA system nationwide, he said.
This is the third veterans housing project Housing Visions has developed on East Genesee Street in cooperation with the Syracuse VA. Housing Visions built Eagle Wood East, a 15-unit apartment building, in 2007, and Maple Heights, a 12-unit project, in 2009.
VanKeuren Square was built on a 3-acre site where the former Jewish Community Center once stood. That building sat empty for many years and became an eyesore. “It was a big ugly 40,000-square-foot building with no windows, trees growing out of roof and a burned out Winnebago in the parking lot,” said Ben Lockwood, a vice president of Housing Visions.
Lockwood said VanKeuren Square is different from the other projects because it caters exclusively to homeless veterans and provides VA services in the building.
Two case managers and a social worker on site help veterans with substance abuse problems, find employment or go back to school, get health care and deal with other issues.
Social workers used to want veterans to tackle those problems before helping them find stable housing, said Bethany Stewart, the VA’s acting health care for homeless veterans team leader. Now they try to address housing first.
“You house people, build rapport and then work on other issues that need to be addressed,” Stewart said.
All of the apartments are furnished with a line of furniture Stickley makes for college dormitories like the recently built residence hall at SUNY ESF.
The two-story building includes a resident lounge, computer lab, training and education rooms, bicycle storage rooms on each floor, a laundry room, exercise room and an outdoor patio with picnic tables and grills. The building is environmentally friendly. Much of the rain water collected on the roof is recycled and used to flush toilets.
In the yard behind the building there are raised garden planters built with materials donated by the Home Depot. Other donations include bookcases from Raymour & Flanigan, televisions from Ra-Lin and books from Books End used book store.
Veterans arrive with few possessions. VanKeuren Square is seeking donations of laundry baskets, sheets, towels and basic kitchen utensils such as silverware and plates. For information about donating, call property manager Sarah Thompson at 474-1815.
Carelli says he stays busy doing volunteer work at his church, playing his guitar and writing poetry.
“It’s difficult to live in the Mission or on the street and feel good about yourself,” he said. “With me it all used to be about where am I going to get my next dollar bill, my next beer, my next cigarette.”
Carelli said moving into VanKeuren Square has brought him a sense of peace and security he has not experienced in years.
“I have an attitude of gratitude,” he said.
You can contact health writer James T. Mulder at or (315) 470-2245. Follow him on Twitter@JamesTMulder.
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