Building a Life
Bedford Green – the Merrimack Valley’s newest apartment building for veterans
Mike Kaminski once walked across war-torn Europe as a member of Gen. George Patton’s 42nd Infantry Division. Now he walks across the pristine floors of Bedford Green, the Merrimack Valley’s newest apartment building for homeless veterans.
“This place is a palace, nice and clean,” he says of the complex, which is located on the campus of the Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital in Bedford, Mass. Kaminski, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday there, is one of 69 residents who call Bedford Green home. Each occupant has his or her own furnished one-bedroom unit with private kitchen and bathroom. Aside from the stylishly appointed digs and modern amenities, it is the security and privacy that most residents principally embrace.
“It is so great to finally have a place to keep my personal items,” says resident Arland Reynolds. Years as a transient often results in the loss or forfeiture of most or all intimate memorabilia, a fate common to most of the residents of this building, which opened in June of 2016. Here, they find stability and a strong support network.
The issue of veteran services has been a high profile talking point lately in the news, on social media and in the presidential race. But for the residents of Bedford Green, the topic is more personal than abstract. Instead of controversy, there’s a gym, a computer room and a day room inside the electronically accessed and monitored building, and a vast patio with a barbecue outside. There’s also a full-time shuttle service and an in-house support staff. There is a renewed sense of belonging and a familial comfort to having one’s own address.
But it is more than a place to hang keepsakes and clothing. It is a place to establish new, healthy relationships with men and women who share the experiences of lean times and dark places traveled. Bedford Green is where a family has emerged among 69 sons and daughters, once solitary veterans who now form a unit. Real family is also welcomed, as the residents are allowed to have visitors stay for up to 14 days.
Melanie Sarna is one of two licensed social workers assigned to Bedford Green. She provides individual support for each resident on matters including symptom management, employment, finances and health care. She arranges for tutorials on domestic chores such as cooking. She also helps the residents navigate the complexities of the Department of Veterans Affairs to determine what other services and opportunities are available to them. She points out that living at Bedford Green isn’t free. Residents pay rent in accordance with each individual’s income, which is often pension-based. Some residents are encouraged to find employment. Eligibility requires a criminal background check, income verification and honorable discharge status from the U.S. military.
“Anyone who is eligible for VASH meets the criteria to live here, provided they are over 55 years old,” Sarna explains. Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) is a nationwide program in which local communities offer affordable housing units to at-risk veterans based on a voucher system. The communities are partially reimbursed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The fiscal burdens are thereby spread over many entities, including the veteran, which lightens the load for all while getting more homeless vets off the streets. This arrangement demonstrates the collaborative nature of the entire enterprise and of the family-style setting of the community.
The four-story building is an impressive structure with a 17,000-square-foot footprint. The 67,800 square feet of living space are divided into 70 one-bedroom units of about 600 to 900 square feet each. Ample parking is available on the 4 acre parcel for residents and visitors. All units are accessible to all degrees of physical mobility.
Bedford Green is located on the northwest corner of the VA hospital campus. Directly adjacent to the south is Patriot Golf Course, which can be seen from some of the units. Although the town of Bedford was not directly involved in the construction process or the land agreement, it has been an enthusiastic and active partner. Local community groups provide residents with welcome packages that include household items such as eating utensils, linens, books and even food. Since many of the residents arrived with little or nothing, it is expected that most will stay and that there won’t be much of a turnover in occupants. This leaves those on the waiting list in limbo.
“I have been to many other states and needed assistance, but Massachusetts is by far the best at providing care and services for veterans,” Reynolds says. He never wants to leave.
“Massachusetts is dedicated to ending homelessness among veterans,” Sarna says. She acknowledges that there are many on the waiting list at Bedford Green but says there are other options and that VASH vouchers are available across the country. Once these vouchers are granted, they can be used at most rental properties that accept Section 8 housing.
Nationally, more than 86,000 veterans have received HUD-VASH vouchers. Braintree-based Peabody Properties, which manages Bedford Green, is committed to ending homelessness among veterans.
“Peabody Properties and our development partners, Windover Construction and Affordable Housing Collaborative, are proud of the work we did to create the community, but the real feeling of satisfaction has been meeting the veterans and seeing them make it their home,” says Betsy Collins, Peabody’s vice president of development.
The safety, health and happiness of the veterans is the end goal of everyone involved in this project. And the residents of 100 Pride Way appreciate the efforts.