Southern Conn. veterans give thanks for a place to call home
NEW LONDON, Conn. — Veterans Day is much more meaningful this year to those whose lives haven't been easy after their military service.
"Being a veteran is the only way I have a roof over my head," Bob Larson said last week. "(Veterans Day) means a lot more to me than it would've five years ago."
It has been five months since American Legion Post 15 opened an apartment house for homeless veterans at the site of its headquarters in Jewett City. Fourteen veterans now live there.
"This will be the first special Veterans Day for me," said Jay-Pierre Soulliere, a Jewett City resident.
In New London, six veterans recently moved into a new home that the New London Homeless Hospitality Center and the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme partnered to purchase and renovate. They dedicated it on Sunday for Veterans Day.
At both homes, the veterans can stay as long as they like, unlike the transitional housing facilities from which many of them moved.
"It's home," Larson said. "If you asked me, 'Where are you going to be in 10 years?' a couple of years ago, I wouldn't have had an answer. Now I can say it's a real possibility that maybe I'll be here in 10 years, unless I hit the lottery. There's a sense of security."
Larson, 54, worked in the commercial nuclear power field after leaving the Navy. But, he said, he was mentally and physically exhausted after commuting for years from Griswold to his job at a nuclear power plant in Massachusetts. He said he didn't relocate because his wife at the time worked at Electric Boat.
In 2010, Larson, then divorced, quit his job. He said he had a bad back from driving so much and became addicted to the opiates prescribed for him. He couldn't find another job and the bank foreclosed on his house.
A counselor from the Reliance House in Norwich convinced Larson, who was planning to live in his house in the winter with no power or heat, to move into transitional housing and then to Jewett City. If it weren't for the veterans' home, Larson said he'd be "either dead or living under a bridge."
"That's kind of cold, but I'm being honest," he said.
The Jewett City home, he said, is a "godsend."
"I am clean for two-plus years. I might have a beer or two watching a football game on Sunday, but I'm opiate free," he said.
"We come here after experiencing homelessness, experiencing problems out there by ourselves, and it's hard to accept that it's a permanent place to live. It's hard to accept the fact that we're here and all these people are friends."
The Reliance House, a nonprofit that works with people dealing with mental illness, substance abuse and homelessness, is the service provider for the Jewett City home. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs allocates rental vouchers. The state of Connecticut helped pay for the two service coordinators.
Parishioners of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme raised half the cost of the home at 19-21 Steward St., New London - about $70,000 - and helped renovate the two-family house in honor of their retiring senior minister, the Rev. David W. Good. Veterans are the first choice for tenants at the Maj. Edward A. Good Veterans' Home, which was named in honor of Good's father, a World War II and Korean War veteran.
The tenants pay a low rent. Tenant Frank Hornby, 31, said he thought dedicating the home on Veterans Day was an "excellent way" to celebrate because "there are a lot of communities where, after you get out of the service, you're just another person."
"I'm just trying to get back on my feet right now," said Hornby, a Waterford native who served in the Army. "I'd like to be out on my own eventually, to give another veteran the same opportunity I have here."
Alisa Herget, director of supportive housing programs at Reliance House, said on Veterans Day in particular, she hopes these veterans feel "cared for and appreciated" now that they have a place to call home. They have spent so much time worrying about their housing situation in the past, she said, it left them no time to address other issues.
"It was always, 'Where am I going to live? Where am I going to live?' And that's not an issue anymore," she said.
The Jewett City home is "a landing place" she said, "and it gives folks an opportunity to say, 'Now I have a life. What do I want to do with it?'"
With that weight lifted, Soulliere, 45, said he now can go to classes through the VA three times a week to cope with mental illness and improve the way he interacts with other people. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his cat, named Goldfish. Taking care of something else helps with therapy, he said.
"I wanted a rescue animal because I was rescued," he said.
A Norwich native and Navy veteran, Soulliere said Veterans Day is special because he lasted long enough to mark the occasion.
"I was on a horrible path," he said. "That's why, you know, this is just above and beyond. I'm trying to strive to better myself to be worthy of being here."
Soulliere's apartment is immaculate. He said he keeps it that way "out of respect for what everyone has done."
His neighbor, Mark Francis, said sometimes he questions whether he deserves such great care.
"There are guys coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan and I'd give this up in a heartbeat for them," he said. "I was ready to go to war. I didn't go but I would've. So what did I do? I cooked for the officers in the ship. I feel guilty for having these benefits, but I'm grateful that I have them. I guess it's never too late to be happy, to have a decent life."
Also a Navy veteran, Francis said some people have misconceptions about people who were or are homeless.
"I don't want people to think that we're a bunch of low-life, losing misfits, looking for handouts," he said. "It's not like that."
Rather, he said, they are "a group of veterans that made a decision one time in their life to serve their country, no matter what happens."
"I think, for the most part, most of us got lost in the cracks and couldn't get out without help," Francis said, "and now we have it."