A Massachusetts-based nonprofit is looking at building a complex of permanent homes for the homeless in Daytona Beach.
By Eileen Zaffiro-Kean
DAYTONA BEACH – When local leaders started sparring over whether to build a new homeless shelter, a four-year tug of war broke out between emergency shelter advocates and permanent housing supporters.
Now it looks like both sides are going to get what they want. Construction is underway on the 100-bed First Step Shelter slated to open next year. And a Massachusetts-based nonprofit called Soldier On is making its move to find property in Daytona Beach to build homes for the homeless.
Soldier On’s plan is to construct apartments or town home-style units the once-homeless residents could stay in as long as they wanted. They could even become partial owners.
Helping homeless people cobble together enough money from Social Security benefits, Veterans Administration assistance, federal housing vouchers and meager wages from part-time jobs to get a roof over their heads isn’t new in Volusia County. But the Soldier On project would mark the first time in county history that a large permanent housing complex was built exclusively for people coming off the streets.
When local homeless people move into places of their own now, they’re connected with whatever housing works and they’re scattered around the area, sometimes shunned by neighbors who find out about their past. The Soldier On vision is for a cohesive village of formerly homeless people who understand and help one another, and have quick access to a plethora of support services.
“They have probably the best reputation in the country for doing these projects,” said Mayor Derrick Henry, who serves as president of the First Step Shelter Board. “We see the long-term housing as a second step. I recognize the problem we’re having with affordable housing.”
Nothing is definite yet, but Soldier On officials have their eye on a 17-acre property on George Engram Boulevard a short distance east of Nova Road. The site across from Bonner Elementary School, vacant since the public housing on it was demolished around 2006, is owned by the Daytona Beach Housing Authority.
“They fell in love with it because it’s a huge piece of property to do everything we envisioned,” said L. Ronald Durham, the city’s Community Relations Manager, who has been heavily involved in local efforts to help the homeless. “We have a bold vision for the site if we can acquire it.”
If Soldier On stays focused on that property just east of the Midtown Cultural and Educational Center, the Housing Authority’s board will ultimately decide whether to sell the land. Durham expects to give a presentation on the Soldier On proposal to the Housing Authority board at their next meeting.
Since the Daytona Beach Housing Authority is in the process of hiring a new executive director, the board might wait for the new agency head to take the helm before making a decision. Henry said board members he’s spoken to “seem supportive of the project,” and he noted that the Housing Authority might be able to provide housing vouchers for residents of the new complex.
If things fall into place, there could be new buildings on the site with space for 50-100 people within the next few years. There could even be a convenience store so the new residents, many who probably wouldn’t have cars, would have easy access to basic necessities.
If the George Engram Boulevard property doesn’t work out, Soldier On officials say they’ve checked out other sites on their visits to Daytona Beach that could work.
Local leaders who’ve seen Soldier On’s residential properties say they’re well-kept and attractive, and look like any other quality apartment buildings or town homes.
“This does not look like anything you’d envision for people who were once homeless,” Durham said. “It’ll look like part of the community.”
‘The timing is perfect’
Soldier On has helped more than 10,000 veterans over the past 25 years with everything from securing Veterans Administration benefits to finding jobs, and the agency bills itself as the largest provider of supportive services for veteran families in the United States.
Up to now Soldier On has exclusively helped veterans, but the Daytona Beach property would welcome both former soldiers and non-soldiers, men and women. It would be for single adults, not families.
At least to start, residents of the new housing would come mainly from First Step Shelter, which will also be for adults. Bruce Buckley, Soldier On’s president and CEO, said his agency would consider homeless people who don’t go to First Step, but priority will be given to those who go to that shelter, which is expected to open in about a year on a site near the Volusia County Branch Jail.
On May 30, the First Step Shelter Board entered into a memorandum of understanding with Soldier On. The plan is for shelter residents who do what’s needed to get their lives back on track to advance from that emergency housing to permanent homes in the Soldier On village.
“First Step is 100 percent behind it,” Henry said. “We’ll help them help us.”
But Soldier On isn’t asking the First Step board for any financial help.
“I like that they didn’t ask us for anything other than cooperation,” said First Step Board member Dwight Selby, an Ormond Beach city commissioner. “I’m excited about it. We’ve got to be able to send people somewhere. The timing is perfect.”
Fellow First Step board member Bill Hall, South Daytona’s mayor, also likes the plan.
“I don’t think it can be a negative in any way,” Hall said.
But some people who live and work near George Engram Boulevard are already worrying.
“All these things need to be out west,” said Johnnie Ponder, a longtime resident of the Midtown neighborhood a few blocks south of George Engram Boulevard. “Shelters, agencies, they can have them. Why do they need to come here?”
Buckley said his organization has to choose sites with good access to businesses, services and transportation, but the nonprofit also tries to “make joint decisions with a community.”
“We try not to go anywhere we’re pushing our way into an area,” he said.
Buckley said he’ll be back in Daytona Beach in a few weeks looking at sites.
The center of the city that Ponder referred to has had Daytona Beach’s largest concentration of homeless assistance agencies for more than a decade. Attempts over the past few years to increase that concentration and locate a homeless shelter in the city’s historic core were met with powerful opposition in four different locations.
But with homeless people and aggressive panhandlers more painfully visible than ever in the city’s center and beachside, many business owners and residents are running out of patience for the shelter and new housing to go up. Two local business owners told city commissioners at their meeting last week that the homeless have become more than just an avoidable annoyance.
Jennifer Finno Ellis, who lives downtown and runs a Main Street tattoo parlor, told city commissioners she recently saw two panhandlers in a turf fight on the corner of Ridgewood Avenue and International Speedway Boulevard. She stepped in to try to help the older panhandler, and said she wound up being attacked by the younger vagrant. She was left with multiple injuries and she’s hobbling around on crutches now.
More about Soldier On
Soldier On provides homeless veterans — as well as those at risk of becoming homeless — with personalized case management, legal help, financial assistance, transportation, basic medical and dental care, food, mental health counseling, treatment for addictions and life skills training. The agency also helps with everything from emergency shelter to transitional housing to permanent housing.
All residents in Soldier On permanent housing are required to complete a life skills program that takes 15 hours and covers financial literacy, legal issues, rules and regulations, wellness and basic life skills. There are even Soldier On reintegration programs in jails and prisons.
“There’s so many layers to addressing homelessness,” Henry said.
Soldier On does not ban alcoholics and drug addicts from its properties, but it doesn’t allow illegal drug use in its homes and relapses are met with intervention efforts.
“Each individual develops a personalized plan for their own healing and recovery in a trauma-free environment,” Durham said. “There will be ongoing case management to make sure they’re a success and not a failure. These will be people who show quite a bit of promise.”
For its first 16 years, Soldier On only offered veteran services. Then in 2010 the agency based in Pittsfield, Mass., branched out and started providing permanent housing, some newly built and some in rehabbed schools.
The nonprofit owns and operates 177 affordable housing units in four Massachusetts cities. The organization says it’s expanding its housing now into New York, New Jersey, Mississippi and Florida.
In Volusia County, other groups have proposed more elaborate versions of what Soldier On hopes to do in Daytona Beach, including one plan for a large homeless village west of Interstate 95 and another proposal for a sprawling homeless community just west of New Smyrna Beach. But those ideas never progressed beyond words and drawings on paper.
Soldier On’s recipe for success has included a mix of tax credits, federal grants and loans to get its properties built.
The agency spent $7 million on its first housing complex, which is located in Pittsfield, and opened seven years ago. The average unit size is 525 square feet. Rent is $526 for a studio apartment and $582 for a one-bedroom home.
The 39 veterans who live there purchased a share in the limited-equity housing cooperative. The cooperatives can provide residents with some extra money when there’s a surplus, and they “get a sense of membership in a community,” Buckley said. “They’re not transient anymore.”
The nonprofit says the Pittsfield property has a resident retention rate of more than 90 percent, and an occupancy rate of nearly 100 percent.
Soldier On has three additional housing complexes in Massachusetts that opened in 2016 and 2017. It also has 19 permanent housing units scattered around Pittsfield, a western Massachusetts city of about 45,000.
Its 44-unit property in Leeds, Mass., cost $10 million to build and furnish, and charges $883 per month for a one-bedroom apartment. A renovated elementary school in Chicopee, Mass., cost $9.8 million to turn into a 43-unit residence that also charges $883 monthly for a one-bedroom unit.
Rent for the fully furnished units includes utilities, high-speed Internet access and basic cable. The units come with personal computers and 32-inch monitors that can also be used for watching TV, video conferencing for group counseling on everything from addictions to weight loss, and using Skype to connect with case managers and healthcare professionals. There are individually designed home screens with access to banking, VA benefits, medical services and prescription support.
Two Massachusetts officials said they’ve heard only good things about Soldier On properties.
“I’m not aware of any issues,” said Peter Marchetti, president of the Pittsfield City Council. “From touring the facilities, it seems good to me.”
Jerry Roy, an at-large member of the Chicopee City Council, said “it’s a good program.”
The Daytona Beach connection
Pete Gamble, a former executive director of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, was the one who connected Daytona Beach and Soldier On. Three years ago, Gamble and the Housing Authority wanted to create a veterans village in Daytona Beach, so they went to Massachusetts to tour the Soldier On homes.
“We were very impressed, so we tried to do the same thing here,” said Gamble, who was celebrated during his tenure for getting several new Daytona Beach Housing Authority properties built.
Three sites in Daytona Beach were chosen as contenders for the housing. The current property on George Engram Boulevard was considered, as was land behind Campbell Middle School and property near the intersection of Mason Avenue and Bill France Boulevard. The effort failed, though, because “there was a lot of territorialism” among some Daytona Beach nonprofits, he said.
“We couldn’t get the support of the social service providers, and some of the funding depended on them signing a letter of support,” Gamble said.
Then six months ago, with First Step Shelter surging toward reality, Durham contacted Gamble to see if the Soldier On project could be revived. Gamble said he got everyone in touch with one another and then bowed out of the process since he retired from his position at the Housing Authority.
But Gamble still believes in Soldier On.
“They were the finest provider we saw,” he said.
Gamble believes permanent housing is a vital part of keeping people from sliding back into homelessness. He noted that some homeless people need an alternative to Housing Authority apartments since they wouldn’t meet that organization’s standards for criminal records and credit history.
The recently homeless also won’t be able to afford the climbing rents in the Daytona Beach area, and new First Step Shelter Executive Director Mark Geallis is afraid a new wave of homelessness could be coming. The city needs all the affordable housing it can get, Geallis said.
“If you don’t have a place after you stabilize them,” Gamble said, “the chance of recycling back to the street is very high.”