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Transitional shelter puts homeless veterans on path to housing
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Transitional shelter puts homeless veterans on path to housing

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Cordell J. Tolor, homeless since 2014, has been touring new apartments.

It’s been a little more than a year since Tolor, 68, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, moved into the Liberation Family Services transitional shelter on Hull Street in South Richmond. That year has set him on a new course, he said.

That drawn-out timeline before looking for a new home is at odds with philosophies that favor programs that get the homeless into independent homes as quickly as possible over transitional facilities that work to get the homeless stabilized before finding them homes. The result is that most state and federal funding flows toward rapid rehousing programs rather than such shelters as Liberation Family Services.

For about six weeks before arriving at the Hull Street shelter, Tolor was living outside. He was a convicted felon from another state sleeping in parks around the city. He had moved to Virginia from New Jersey to start a new life but soon found himself with no money and nowhere to stay.

He is among the 25 men, all veterans, who live in the three-story building on the corner of Hull and 12th streets that pastor Jay Patrick saved after the shelter known for 10 years as Freedom House closed its doors in 2013.

In two years, about 250 men have used the shelter as a steppingstone to a new home, contributing to the state’s pledge to eradicate homelessness among veterans. There is always a waiting list for the 25 available beds, Patrick said.

Tolor soon will move into his own home and plans to continue volunteering with FeedMore and a program to help prisoners transition into civilian life. He credits his stay at Liberation with turning his life around.

“It gives you a chance to think and get a new perspective on things you need to do,” said Tolor, who regularly sees counselors, physical therapists and Veterans Affairs doctors who keep tabs on his heart.

“I needed to set up a network of people to help me, because I really didn’t know the city of Richmond or state of Virginia. What I needed to do was get some direction.”

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The men often come referred from McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center or from 511 W. Grace St., where Commonwealth Catholic Charities runs a homeless point of entry to quickly find ways to get health care, homes or shelter space for the region’s homeless.

Many will stay nine months to a year, putting their lives back together. But that time frame often is compressed.

The federal- and state-backed push to end veteran homelessness, which Gov. Terry McAuliffe in November announced that Virginia had by one measure accomplished, has focused on finding permanent apartments and houses for the homeless as quickly as possible, often with the aid of federal rent vouchers.

From October 2014 to November 2015, more than 1,400 homeless veterans across the state were put into housing. The state focused primarily on Richmond, Hampton Roads and Roanoke and made sure various health care, shelter and housing services all were in touch in the areas where approximately two-thirds of the state’s homeless veteran population lives.

The goal now is to find permanent housing for veterans within 90 days.

The state set aside $1 million to combat homelessness, with half of that earmarked for veterans. But that money goes toward quickly finding the homeless a place of their own, not transitional shelters such as Patrick’s that previously would allow people to stay up to two years.

“The only way to end homelessness is permanent housing,” said Matt Leslie, director of housing development with the state Department of Veterans Services. “What we are finding is, if you want to house someone and give them services, you need to house them first.”

Leslie said transitional shelters still have a role to play in ending homelessness, but the focus has shifted to quick, less expensive permanent housing.

Patrick receives funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a dozen beds for homeless veterans. Those are among 69 VA-funded shelter beds in the state, with 43 of them in Richmond.

The VA is Liberation’s main source of income, and Patrick stretches that to operate the shelter with up to 25 residents. Volunteers arrive nightly at dinnertime to cook a meal for the men.

But Patrick has 13 beds that go unused now because he cannot afford a second case manager to coordinate the additional hospital visits, job interviews and, often, substance abuse counseling.

“Maybe transitional housing is not the solution, but it’s part of the toolbox that needs funding as well,” Patrick said. “Homelessness is not a one-size-fits-all. … Even if it’s not for two years, 90 days in an environment that promotes confidence, camaraderie, being clean and sober, is needed in some cases.”

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The Liberation program works in three stages, with curfews ranging from 6 p.m. for beginners to 10 p.m. for those who have remained clean, found a job and are nearly ready to find a place of their own. The shelter provides classes on writing a résumé and has a rack filled with suits for the men to wear to job interviews.

By the shelter’s count, more than 80 percent of the men who have come through its doors have remained in their new homes for the entire year that Liberation continued to follow up with them.

“I have a deep connection to the guys of this program because, honestly, it could be any of us,” Patrick said. “All of us are one bad decision away from homelessness.”

Patrick travels and has used a mailing campaign to try to raise awareness and support for the shelter. He hopes one day to open a thrift store or other businesses that will support it.

After he spoke about the shelter at Sandston Presbyterian Church, Air Force veteran Lee Conner volunteered to help however he could.

On Liberation’s long-term plan was a remodeling of the basement that for decades was used as storage space. Patrick’s vision was a new space with a separate entrance that one day could be used as a women’s shelter.

“I’m an old retired contractor, and I don’t have anything better to do,” said Conner, 85. “I have put together a crew of guys. The average age is 76 years old. And we are renovating the basement.”

But the donations to help with the work have not kept up with the cost, which is delaying the project.

Richard Deloatch recently lost his home after his sister moved away and his disability check would not cover bills. The 52-year-old who served in an Army artillery unit in the early 1980s lived in the house for nearly a month with no electricity or running water before he packed a suitcase and caught a bus downtown to find help.

A month after settling at Liberation, Deloatch is enrolling in classes to become certified to supervise asbestos removal. He is already in touch with employers who have agreed to consider him once he completes his training.

Deloatch said some people in circumstances like his can benefit from time in the shelter before settling into an apartment.

“I understand people want their own places. But this is a place you can really sit down and think about things,” Deloatch said.

“If you need help with addiction, there’s meetings. The VA can get you medical care. They help you here with bus tickets if you don’t have a vehicle. Everything you need is right here.”

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