Asheville's Veterans Restoration Quarters gives homeless vets hope - and a home

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Written by J. Wallace Jr.   
Saturday, 26 November 2011 15:21

EAST ASHEVILLE — On any given night, the Veterans Restoration Quarters houses about 235 men, and every one of them has a story to tell.

Nearly all are homeless veterans, and more than 80 percent have undergone recent treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. More than 80 percent have a mental health diagnosis, including many who have post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms dating to childhood.

“We get men straight out of prison. We get men straight out of combat,” VRQ Director Michael Reich said. “Violence for many of these men has been a way of life.”

After four years at its current location — a former Super 8 Motel on Tunnel Road that has undergone an amazing transformation — the center has made a sizable dent in the number of homeless veterans. Part of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, the VRQ can house 246 men, compared with fewer than 50 at the previous location on Coxe Avenue.

'I do want to stay here and give back'

Gary Finley is one of the success stories, and his tale involves more hard luck than anything else.

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Finley grew up in south Florida and starting working in restaurants at age 13.

“When the housing bubble popped in ’08, half of the restaurants in Florida closed,” Finley said, noting that the place he worked had a longstanding catering contract with NASA that dried up. “I went homeless in Florida and really struggled for awhile.”

He looked in Georgia for jobs but found nothing.

“After awhile, you just become unemployable — laundry facilities are hard to come by,” Finley said with a wry smile. “I’ve been reduced to panhandling. Homelessness is a traumatic event for anybody.”

Finley was in the Army from 1977-79, serving as a armorer. That status as a veteran was his salvation.

He came to Asheville two years ago and found the shelters full. A guy on the streets hollered at him, “Are you a veteran?”

Then he told him about the VRQ on South Tunnel Road, and Finley started staying there. He got involved in the culinary program at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and then accepted a job as kitchen manager at the VRQ.

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He’s had more lucrative job offers, but he feels a debt of gratitude to the center.

“You can’t outgive ABCCM,” said Finley, 51. “They put me in as kitchen manager. I was looking at three years ago being unhirable. I’ve turned down jobs ... because I do want to stay here and give back.”

Finley lives with his son in his own place now, but he, like most of the men there, carries eternal gratitude for the help VRQ extended to him.

Plenty of rules

Don’t get the idea that the VRQ is a cakewalk, though. With a maximum capacity of 246 men, the facility has to run a tight ship.

It keeps 12 beds specifically for nonveteran homeless, as well as 18 emergency shelter beds for veterans or nonveterans. All residents are male. ABCCM runs a separate shelter for 18 female veterans, called Steadfast House.

Veterans have a two-year time limit for staying at VRQ, although the facility keeps 50 rooms that men can stay in permanently. Those residents must pay $425 a month and buy their meals. The center has a full-service cafeteria that serves three meals a day.

“They want the accountability, and they want the camaraderie,” Reich said.

Drugs and alcohol are strictly forbidden on the grounds — if a man blows a blood alcohol level of .04 or higher he must sit in the lobby until it’s below that. The staff also randomly administers breathalyzer tests on residents.

Finley said the vast majority of vets there are ready to make changes, but they do have “a few bad apples.

“They tend to weed themselves out,” Finley said.

When they come in, multiple men share a room, and often they are struggling with substance abuse or a mental illness issue. The standard initial intake room houses six men in stacks of three-tiered bunk beds.

The idea is to “incentivize” the men to strive for less crowded rooms and more amenities through good behavior. The four-man room, called a “foundation room,” comes with a locker and a telephone, for instance. A three-man room, called a “cornerstone room,” includes a television.

The next level, the “pillar,” includes a maximum of six passes off the campus, a refrigerator and a microwave oven. Twenty residents live by themselves.

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The idea is that the men are rewarded for accepting more responsibility and serving as mentors for other residents.

The overall goals are simple:

Job training that will lead to stable income or in some cases to make sure men are getting the disability income they’re entitled to.

Housing — either at VRQ or on their own.

Counseling, whether for outpatient care at the VA or a 28-day program for substance or alcohol abuse.

Success by numbers

With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan extending a decade, the number of homeless veterans surged, reaching an estimated 250,000 in 2003, according to the VA. Eric Shinseki, secretary of the VA, set a goal to reduce the number of homeless veterans to 59,000 in 2012 and to eventually end it.

The number stood at 131,000 in 2008 and 76,329 in 2010, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Veterans are more prone to homelessness because they often find themselves without a job abruptly after leaving the military, and many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of their service. In some cases, that condition can make it difficult to hold down a job, pay rent and function normally in society.

Allison Bond, homeless program coordinator at the Charles George VA Medical Center, said their staffing for homeless services has increased from two in 2005 to 12 today. The VA offers a walk-in clinic for homeless veterans, and the administration set up a help hotline.

“I think we’ve made leaps and bounds in ending veteran homelessness in this area,” Bond said, citing efforts for helping veterans with long-term supportive housing, such as the Section 8 program administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“We have 145 of those vouchers, and just in the past month we have placed 116 homeless veterans into permanent housing, so that’s huge,” Bond said.

Scott Rogers, executive director of ABCCM, said the the new VRQ location has allowed ABCCM to quadruple its services to veterans.

“If you look at it strictly from the standpoint of beds, we went from roughly 80 beds for just men to close to 240, so we’ve tripled our capacity, which is huge,” Rogers said.

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The veterans center placed about 200 homeless veterans into the workforce last year, and they have a job retention rate of 87 percent and an average wage of $12.31 an hour. About 90 percent of the men end up in independent living or supportive housing, such as the federal Section 8 subsidized housing. Some men have been able to buy homes.

Rogers acknowledges that some residents can’t hack the rules or the regime.

“We have about 20 percent of those who go through the intake process who fail,” Rogers said, adding that they don’t put anyone out on the streets.

Major changes

Founded in 1969 by eight Buncombe County churches, ABCCM now encompasses 271 congregations and more than 3,600 volunteers.

It’s got some firepower, but the Coxe Avenue center, which housed the VRQ until 2007, was far from plush.

So when the Super 8 Motel on Tunnel Road came available, the ABCCM jumped at the opportunity. The building and grounds cost $5.6 million, which was paid for in part by a $1.6 million grant from the Charles George Veterans Administration hospital and another $1 million grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank.

ABCCM has had contracts on its Coxe Avenue property in the $3-million range, which would’ve gone to that purchase price, but the deals have fallen through because of financing issues. The property remains for sale.

The VA contributes about $1.5 million a year to the VRQ’s budget, a match to ABCCM’s contribution. The annual operating budget is $2.4 million, plus another $600,000 for the women’s facility.

Now, the buildings and grounds are immaculate, thanks in part to the work of Larry Hensley, a former professional landscaper from Florida who meticulously placed each rock and carefully trimmed every crepe myrtle.

“I never wanted it to look like a shelter for homeless men,” Reich said, adding that Hensley saw to that.

For his part, Hensley, a former Marine who spent much of his career as a truck driver, lived in Indiana and Florida. He kept his commercial drivers license for 42 years.

Now, at 63, he’s got to stay on top of his diabetes and isn’t so keen on the long hours on the road. His wife and child have passed away, and Hensley sold the family farm in Yancey County.

He’s been at the VRQ for three years now and lives in one of the single rooms. He puts in 20 hours of work a week, mowing and landscaping.

Hensley said the VRQ has helped a lot of men .

“Sometimes, when you get down and you’ve lost everything, it’s hard to get back up. But one little helping hand can bring you back up.”