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Minnesota's Fort Snelling opens veterans housing

By BARRY LYTTON | Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) | Published: October 3, 2015

In buildings meant to house troops, officers and their horses, veterans now reside.

Although some veterans moved in months ago, Upper Post Veterans Community officially opened its doors Friday at 6210 Bloomington Road, next to Historic Fort Snelling. The center, which began to transform five historic military buildings from barracks and stables to community and stable homes over a year ago, hosts 58 furnished apartments for veterans.

"I would stay here forever if I could," Navy veteran Judy Ganino said.

Ganino, 59, served from 1975 to 1983, during which time she said she incurred post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over the past decade her troubles recurred, coupled with other health problems that left her unable to work more than 20 hours a week. She sought help in 2012, and that help brought her to Fort Snelling. Ganino moved just over a month ago. Now, in a fittingly named studio apartment, Ganino can focus on her passion, art.

Past old brick walls and under historic wooden rafters, tucked away down long halls of brand-new wallboard, Austin Poons, 62, lives behind a door with a warning:

"Beware: Guard Golden Retriever on Duty."

Poons, a U.S. Army veteran, and his therapy dog Dutchess moved into their one-bedroom apartment in June. They have loved the sense of community and the stability of their new abode ever since, Poons said.

"I'm at peace," he said.

Veterans Ganino and Poons now live in a fort an active soldier hasn't seen since October 1946, said Tom Pfannenstiel, the site manager for Historic Fort Snelling.

Poons' new apartment, for which he pays 30 percent of his income, lets him focus on his calling, volunteering with Dutchess.

Poons, who suffers from depression, said therapy dogs have helped save him.

When Dutchess and Poons aren't lying in the apartment's bed or lounging on its couch, they're out helping people, he said.

"Just last week we were at the U of M," he said. "Dutchess saw 217 people in two hours."

Poons and Ganino live in what used to be horse stables built in 1909, Pfannenstiel said.

Neither apartment shows its age. Inside are new appliances. Upstairs, or up an elevator -- luckily, not from 1909 -- is a technology center with computers, a string of offices and meeting rooms and a community center.

But the sense of community stretches far outside of the communal rooms, Ganino said.

"It's the little things," she said. "We're very neighborly."

The Fort Snelling development is one facet of a statewide initiative to end homelessness among veterans.

At the center's opening ceremony, officials ranging from Patrick Kelly, director of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, to Dave St. Peter, president of the Minnesota Twins, spoke of the need to house Minnesota's veterans.

And St. Peter's Twins along with Minnetonka-based UnitedHealthcare put their money where their mouth was.

The Twins supplied the center with its technology room and invited all the live-in veterans to Friday's Twins-Royals game. UnitedHealthcare contributed $9.3 million toward construction of the $17.2 million project, according to CommonBond Communities, its developer.

"The majority of us feel truly blessed," Ganino said.

Robert Rongitsch, who was in a homeless shelter before he moved into his new studio apartment, agreed with Ganino.

"You can't beat it," he said. "This is where I belong."

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