Volunteers of America is set to get a major boost this week when it receives a $100,000 grant from TD Bank that will help support the Cabin in the Woods veterans housing program.
The grant, from the TD Charitable Foundation’s Housing for Everyone initiative, will be presented to Volunteers of America officials during a ceremony Thursday at the organization’s office in Brunswick.
“We’re going to try to create a veterans housing community that combines the best of rural life with providing very accessible medical care,” said Bill Browning, manager of grants and community engagement for Volunteers of America Northern New England.
The Cabin in the Woods program will provide 21 cabins at an 11-acre wooded site on the grounds of the VA Maine Healthcare System Togus in Chelsea. The organization secured a 75-year lease for the property in 2009 and has worked to raise about $4 million for construction over the last seven years.
“It’s very exciting,” said Togus director Ryan Lilly.
Because of the wooded location, there will be added costs to bring high-speed Internet and cable to the cabins, and Browning said the grant money will be used to help pay for those improvements.
“We want to have people receive all the services they would receive in an urban setting in a rural and secluded setting,” Browning said.
There are 16 one-bedroom cabins and five two-bedroom units that will be open to single veterans or veterans with families and children. They will all share similar design and furnishings because of the ease in providing the same services to everyone, said Michael Merrill, VOA program manager who will oversee Cabin in the Woods.
“Uniformity goes a long way because it’s easy to maintain,” Merrill said. “It’s all about getting their lives back to their status quo.”
Lilly hopes living on the VA’s campus will encourage residents to seek care.
“We know that a lot of times these veterans end up homeless because they weren’t getting the care they needed,” Lilly said. “Being right here on campus with easy access to all the care we provide is going to be a fantastic setup for these folks.”
The volunteers group is already starting to think about who will have the opportunity to live in the cabins, and there will be 16 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program vouchers funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development that will help veterans pay rent on the cabins.
VOA officials are going through the process of gathering names and screening potential candidates with the VA’s help.
“My goal is to have a complete list no later than May,” Merrill said. “Too many things can change if you have a completed list too far out from the project’s completion.”
Lilly said the VA will provide case management and financial care for those using the vouchers, and Togus staff will be available to assist people in the program with many of their needs.
One of the good things about the program, Browning said, is that children will be able to live with their parents/guardians in the cabins, something that isn’t always the case at homeless shelters or other facilities. For veterans who are homeless and needing something positive to get their lives on track, Browning said this arrangement is important.
“Usually when you’re homeless you don’t maintain a lot of contact with your family, so this will be a chance to recover some of those contacts,” Browning said. “We want parents to have their children there as part of their recovery.”
Merrill agreed and said VOA is doing their best to house veterans with children because part of the recovery process includes feeling safe and secure, which Merrill said won’t happen if the veterans are separated from their kids.
“Reunification is part of the healing process and helps with getting your feet back on the ground,” he said.
Lilly said it is nice to see people coming together for the benefit of veterans after what was a pretty divisive election season. He said everyone seems to agree that veterans should be supported.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years that veterans’ issues tend to rise above politics,” Lilly said. “This is just another example that for veterans, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican or independent.”
Construction is expected to begin early next year and is on schedule for a summer completion and occupancy.
The VOA will impose its own rules on their tenants. No weapons will be allowed in the cabins and it will be an alcohol-free campus. There will be a 22nd cabin which will be used by VOA staff, and there will always be an employee on site.
Merrill said the design is for the staff to be able to assist with any problem that may arise outside of normal daytime hours, but he left open the possibility that the cabin could end up being used by a veteran depending on the success of the program.
Browning said he knows homelessness among veterans is decreasing, but there is still a need for these services.
“Hopefully we can combine the best of them living in nature in a real rural setting while at the same time giving them modern conveniences and providing them the care they need,” he said.
Jason Pafundi — 621-5663