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Homeless Rural Vets Find A Place To Call Home

This month, more than a dozen homeless veterans will finally have a place to call their own, thanks to the American Legion.

Never did I have a house or my own place or nothing.

The organization's post in a small Connecticut town has been working for a decade on a unique project to create not transitional but permanent supportive housing in their rural community.

For 55-year-old Army veteran Jeff MacDonald, the new facility in Jewett City, Conn., was like "winning the lottery."

"Never did I have a house or my own place or nothing," MacDonald says while walking through his new apartment. "That's why I'm always outside."

MacDonald is one of 15 homeless veterans who will live in the renovated American Legion Post. When he got the news, MacDonald says he cried. He has spent the past 22 years drifting from place to place, and battling alcoholism along the way. Now, he's awestruck by the idea that he'll have his own home.

Jewett City is in southeastern Connecticut, a rural town that lost its major textile industry when the mills closed after World War II. It's a quiet community with a Main Street that's quintessential New England. Everything you need is a short walk away.

A popular destination is Arremony's Bakery, just a few feet away from the American Legion Post. It was there that Navy veteran William Czmyr first hatched his idea to help homeless veterans by creating apartments for them.

"There are veterans out there that are having it kind of rough; trying to get things back together," Czmyr says. "They come out of the military, and somewhere along the line they made the wrong turn."

The Legion post in Jewett City had an abundance of space, so Czmyr organized a committee 10 years ago to work on raising money to renovate the building. From the very beginning, the idea was to provide permanent supportive housing where veterans could stay as long as it took for them to become independent.

The location piqued the interest of the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately.

"Homelessness is a problem in rural areas in southeast Connecticut as in many rural areas in America," says Laurie Harkness, director of the VA's Errera Center in Connecticut.

The VA is in the third year of an initiative to end homelessness, but the biggest challenge remains in rural communities where the VA has had a hard time connecting with veterans. For example, it could take a veteran in Jewett City more than an hour to get to one of Connecticut's two VA hospitals.

Post Cmdr. Mark Czmyr, William Czmyr's son, says this is why the Legion wanted to provide housing to veterans living in the eastern part of the state.

"If they were homeless and looking for a place to live, they may have to go to New Haven or Hartford [and] be displaced from an area that they know," Mark Czmyr says.

Federal VA housing vouchers known as HUD-VASH will pay the rent for each veteran. Caseworkers and medical staff from the VA will also come to the men and women living in the building.

In late June, the town of Jewett City turned out to officially open the $6 million renovated apartment building and American Legion Post.

Harkness says Jewett City could be a model for other communities. She says ideas like this come up all the time, but this rural town has something not found in very many places.

"This is the first project that I've ever been involved in where there was no 'not in my backyard,' " Harkness says. "Everybody supported it."

The uniqueness of this project garnered $200,000 in federal government funds. The American Legion also received sizable grants from the state of Connecticut, as well as private donations.

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Lucy is the Executive Producer and Host of WNPR's popular talk show, Where We Live.