A ground-breaking, Legionnaire-backed homeless veterans housing facility officially opened June 11 in Jewett City, Conn., welcoming its first residents and celebrating the culmination of the $6.26-million project. The American Legion Veterans Housing Inc. (TALVHI) began a decade ago as an idea that Legionnaire Bill Czmyr was floating around his small town. It snowballed into an expansive residence center for homeless veterans that many experts think could serve as a national model.
"10 years turned into a couple days, and now we've got our ribbon cutting," Czmyr said.
The facility contains 18 apartments, located in the top floor of LaFlamme-Kusek Post 15 - Czmyr's post - and in an adjacent building that was constructed as part of the project. At least five of the residents will be moved in by the month's end. The facility should be at full capacity by mid-summer.
Renowned for its revolutionary approach to the homelessness problem, TALVHI will offer permanent housing to at-risk veterans who are funneled into the residence by the state Department of Veterans Affairs. Such free housing is usually given on a temporary basis.
Avery Tillinghast, fundraising chief for TALVHI, says he has heard from more than 15 individuals nationwide who were inspired to start similar projects.
"It really is a national model because the Legion gave up its building," he said.
Renovations and construction took 14 months to complete. Contractors had to install a new building in the brick shell of the 130-year-old post building to accommodate the upstairs apartments. The adjacent addition was constructed from the ground up to contain 10 apartments - two handicap-accessible - and connected to the post building by a breezeway.
The facility features common areas as well. Furnishing for them was donated by Waterford Hotels. The company is in the process of donating exercise equipment for a fitness area.
Residents will also be given support services, such as job counseling, career placement and mental-health resources. Tillinghast says the local bank has agreed to set up cost-free savings and checking accounts for residents who can also receive financial advice from the bank.
"Other communities have had push back from their residents when they've tried to do this sort of project in the past, but we've received nothing but support from the town," Tillinghast said.
The brainchild of Czmyr, TALVHI was hatched in 2002 when Czmyr mentioned in a conversation at the local coffee shop that he'd like to convert his post's vacant upstairs into free housing for veterans.
"We had this building and we had all this space. And it gets so cold outside... we had to do something," Czmyr said.
Eventually, Czmyr gathered a group of cohorts who met with him every week, helping find contractors, file for nonprofit status and raise funds. News of the project reached government officials who pledged their support.
Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., approved a $200,000 earmark for TALVHI. The project later garnered $5.3 million in state grants and tax credits - $3.8 million from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and $500,000 each from the Connecticut Economic Development Commission and Connecticut Supportive Housing and Connecticut Light & Power.
Nearly $450,000 came in through private donations, and $175,000 is still being raised for grounds and building development.
"No one ever told me ‘no,'" Czmyr said.
Reflecting back, Tillinghast said he was impressed with the manner in which the project grew from small talk among townspeople to a revolutionary home for homeless veterans. Having worked in philanthropy and fundraising for more than 30 years, Tillinghast called the opening ceremony one of the most impressive he's ever seen.
"It was a very great day and very special day for us and for the city of Jewett City," he said.