Levi DeWilde, Victor Cooper, Ruth Fredericks and Joe Sluszka share a touching moment inside Albany Housing Coalition's Vet House, a 28-bed facility for homeless veterans
Victor Cooper credits the Albany Housing Coalition, Inc. (AHC) with turning his life around, in more ways than one.
A three-year U.S. Army veteran who received an honorable discharge, Victor is working toward securing permanent housing and a full-time job in the security field, thanks to the non-profit agency.
“If it wasn’t for the Albany Housing Coalition, I’d probably be sleeping under a bridge,” Victor said. “A lot of veterans, when we come in here, we’re broken down, but when we come through here, they straighten us out. They’ve given me a chance to be back on my own and earn a paycheck.”
Since 1990, AHC has provided a holistic response to the needs of returning and homeless veterans in upstate New York, facilitating access to housing, employment, healthcare resources and a shoulder to lean on, according to Joe Sluszka, AHC’s executive director and regular participant in NYSID’s Veterans’ Summit. “Our job is to raise self-esteem, establish a relationship of trust, communicate hope, and insist on personal responsibility –– and we love them,” he said. “We’ve had incredible success at giving veterans a new shot and helping them move forward.”
Such success, in fact, that Eric Shinseki, then-U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs, honored AHC in 2009 for its outstanding service on behalf of homeless veterans. “We’re the little engine that could,” Sluszka said.
For the past 12 years, AHC’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) has broken through barriers to employment by providing employment resources, case management, tools and clothing, and ultimately good-paying jobs to more than 530 disabled and homeless veterans, with a retention rate of nine months or longer.
Statues representing the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces -- Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy -- stand at attention at Albany Housing Coalition's Vet House
Earlier this year, AHC was notified by the U.S. Department of Labor that funding for its HVRP would end effective June 30, 2016. The HVRP was downsized, as of July 1, 2016, from two veteran employment specialists down to one, with funding from AHC’s reserve funds until January 31, 2017.
AHC reached out to community leaders to match the non-profit’s fundraising efforts for its employment specialist position, and NYSID generously contributed $5,000. “Eliminating the HVRP is not acceptable, and what NYSID’s donation has done is enable us to keep going,” Sluszka said. “I’m ecstatic.”
“NYSID assists with veterans’ support programs, promoting quality of life for veterans as they reconnect to the New York State workforce,” Romano said. “We are pleased to support the Albany Housing Coalition in its efforts to provide employment, housing and healthcare to our veterans who have sacrificed so much.”
Ruth Fredericks, AHC’s veteran employment specialist, is herself a U.S. Army veteran, and she loves spending each day assisting her fellow vets. “I’m honored and blessed to work here and meet veterans every day,” she said. “They’re the most generous, kind, sweet-hearted and blessed people. Our hands are never tied. If I’m helping a veteran, I’m working. It’s about really making it a success story for the veteran.”
Along with employment, Fredericks also helps veterans find a place to live, in her role as AHC’s permanent housing case manager. Until they do, AHC’s Vet House offers a 28-bed, single room occupancy (SRO) facility with a monitored supportive transitional environment for homeless veterans. “The vision is to put veterans in homes, not apartments,” Fredericks said. “It’s about making us all whole.”
Levi DeWilde is one veteran who seeks to make himself –– and others –– whole, with AHC’s help.
Like his fellow veteran Victor Cooper, Levi is a U.S. Army veteran who received an honorable discharge after three years of service. He is equally grateful to AHC for helping him straighten out his life in search of permanent, positive change. “My whole life has been a struggle trying to gain control of my addictions,” he said. “It’s been a battle of life and death. Anybody who helps me out has saved my life, and a lot of people have saved my life.”
Levi is pursuing his degree so he can work peer-to-peer with persons with addictions. Admittedly, but not ashamedly, he is highly qualified for the job. “Coming from the lifestyle of a homeless drug addict, I relate to them. They trust me more,” he said. “AHC saved my life. I was headed out on another homeless venture, and penniless. They’ve given me an opportunity to continue establishing myself and pull myself out of this self-inflicted hole.”
Victor’s career preferences differ from Levi’s, but he shares the same desire to pursue meaningful work and fulfill a higher calling. “AHC gives us self-esteem,” he said. “We feel like we have something to live for.”