Homeless Heroes

Neighborhood concerns bring changes to veterans' housing development


Tell a community that 75 military veterans are moving into the neighborhood, and they’ll likely be welcomed with open arms. But see what happens when you tell the community that those vets are homeless. The Volunteers of America and the Veteran’s Administration of Nebraska-Western Iowa jumped easily through government hoops to gain approval for a facility to house Omaha’s homeless veterans last year: The City Planning Board agreed to rezone a three-acre lot near 40th and Pacific; and the City Council unanimously approved the plan in December. Organizers plan to break ground on Veterans Village early this summer, with a scheduled completion date of fall 2011. But while the city was on board, neighbors of the proposed facility along the Field Club Trail questioned whether it was a good fit. In September, the Field Club Homeowners League faxed 55 questions pertaining to the project to the Western Iowa-Nebraska VA, listing numerous public safety, traffic, design and management concerns. The VA responded with point-by-point answers in October, and collected more feedback at a series of public forums later that month. Will Ackerman, public affairs director for the Veterans Administration, says some of those recommendations were incorporated into the current design of Veterans Village. “This wasn’t done on a whim,” he says. “We looked at a number of issues.” The original design for the $20 million facility included five stories with 100 individual housing units. After meeting with neighbors and nearby neighborhood association leaders, the partners reduced the building to four stories and 75 units. Volunteers of America says it is setting up a community advisory board to seek continued input from the neighbors. Ackerman estimates between 800 and 900 homeless veterans live in Metro Omaha. Only honorably discharged veterans will be considered for housing. And sex offenders and violent criminals will be prohibited. Mike Battershell, president of the nearby Hanscom Park Neighborhood Association, thinks the $20 million project was better suited for a less-developed part of Omaha. “My biggest personal concern has to do with the way we develop the community,” he says. “This was a unique opportunity to say, ‘we’re going to invest in a part of the city that’s blighted.’ It would’ve required more effort, but it would’ve been a catalyst for change.” Gina Freimuth, community relations director for Volunteers of America, says her organization considered a number of sites before choosing the final location. Proximity to the VA Medical Center and public transportation were key factors in the decision. Those features should help the facility be more than a simple homeless shelter “The reason Veterans Village is being developed is because Omaha is locked into the shelter system,” Freimuth says. “Shelters are needed in every community, but supportive housing is the key to ending homelessness period. It is based on establishing a home and wrapping services around their needs.” Residents will be eligible to live in the Veterans Village for up to two years. And each veteran will be assigned an individual case manger. Freimuth says the VA partnership increases options for assistance. “One veteran might need help getting jobs and understanding how to put together a resume,” she says. “Another might have health or mental health concerns. We can help them qualify for benefits they can access. We’ll be there from beginning to end.” Despite the initial concerns, Ackerman thinks the community feel among Midtown residents will help veterans become active in their new community. “Midtown residents are very proud of their part of the community,” he says. “They certainly have a rich history, and, rightly so, they wanted to make sure the project was a good fit for the area. “The VA mandate is to help veterans gain skills and, with the help of the Midtown community, I think we found the perfect place to do that.”


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