When Michael Frada was living on the bricks, he never envisioned ever having granite countertops in his kitchen.
That’s exactly what he has today, as the former Army veteran who ended up homeless has taken refuge and residence in Chelsea’s new North Bellingham Veterans Home, where he and eight other veterans have assisted housing in a partnership between The Neighborhood Developers (TND), the Pine Street Inn and the state’s Office of Veterans Affairs.
The home actually opened about two weeks ago, but the grand opening – which attracted all sorts of officials, including former City Manager Jay Ash – took place last Thursday morning.
For veterans like Frada, the home has become a dream come true and a way back into society.
“I was living on the bricks,” he said. “I lost my significant other of 22 years. She passed and my Dad went a little while later. Then my mom passed. It was a rough six years. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was living on the streets – using my survival skills I had learned in the Army. After awhile, you just get used to that life. I got used to it. I never thought I would live in a place like this.”
Frada said the staff at St. Paul’s Cathedral helped him to regain his confidence and get associated with the Pine Street Inn, and soon after that the new home in Chelsea.
“I’m adjusting,” he said matter of factly. “It’s tough after living on the streets…I just feel blessed. I tell people I’m going into my second half of my life. The best part about that is I’m not just surviving anymore; I’m living.”
Another resident, Bob DeLorey, talked about how he went from having his own home and family to bouncing around with family members and trying to deal with physical and mental issues.
“It’s great to experience having my own space again,” he said. “Having my own bathroom is a real change. I’ve been making my favorite comfort foods in my kitchen and that’s been wonderful. I am looking forward to making a meal for the entire house when everyone gets settled. I make a killer pot roast…What happened is my rent went up and I had to move in with my sister. I heard about this place, got in the lottery and got a spot. I’m ecstatic for living here in a community like this. Living here has changed my life and I’m incredibly thankful.”
In addition to the living units – which are dormitory style with a kitchen and bathroom – there are support services onsite offered through Pine Street Inn and Veterans Services. There is also a housing manager that lives in the home with the veterans. The development is within the old American Legion Post 34 across from City Hall. The building had run on hard times prior to the 2012 development plan, and most everyone saw the re-use as a fitting tribute to the Legion.
“This is our first permanent housing for homeless veterans,” said Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn. “Most people think Pine Street Inn is a shelter. We are a shelter, but now our mix is about 60 percent housing and 40 percent shelter. We are very invested in ending homelessness. We are very invested in ending homelessness for veterans. We can do it. Our numbers in Massachusetts are not huge. It’s a resource issue. When people say we can’t end homelessness among vets, it’s not true. We can do it. The numbers in the Commonwealth are down 40 percent already in the last three years.”
Council President Leo Robinson noted that he had a surprise birthday party at the Legion on his 40th, but felt that the current use has turned out to be an even better surprise.
“It’s entirely appropriate that this house for homeless vets is in an old American Legion Hall,” he said. “While the organization here is not active, many of the former members in Chelsea are vets. By agreeing to sell this building for this purpose, they have furthered the mission of helping and serving veterans.”
Former City Manager Jay Ash, now the state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, recalled how the idea came to be during a Memorial Day ceremony.
After a discussion with several folks, including Robinson and Councillor Giovanni Recupero, and following that, a conversation with TND President Ann Houston – the vision for the old American Legion Hall came into focus.
“Ann told me they had been thinking the same thing at TND and she wanted to look at the American Legion Hall,” he said. “When she mentioned the American Legion Hall, a light went on. That’s how all this came together and everyone else came in. I’m a veteran of this building, though Little League banquets, sweet 16 parties and the Winnisimmet Club…It’s great to see this building, which has always been a significant part of the community but went through a lull for awhile, now become a significant part of the community again.”
Houston recalled a touching story already experienced by one of the disabled veterans through an interaction with the area children.
“One of the residents, who is in a wheelchair, was outside smoking a cigarette when a little girl and little boy came up to him,” said Houston. “The little girl saluted him and told him she was thankful for him serving the country and protecting her. The little boy gave him a ball and said, ‘Welcome, you can use this for your hand exercises.’ That’s Chelsea. That’s the kind of place it is.”