NEWINGTON - The prospect of additional housing for homeless veterans brought some excitement to the Newington Veterans Medical Center this week.
A public hearing for the Victory Gardens II concept was held Tuesday afternoon inside the hospital. Veterans, town officials and local residents gathered to voice their concerns and questions about the proposal, to add 35 apartment units to the current 74-unit Victory Gardens complex on the hospital grounds.
The project calls for renovating Buildings 6, 7, and 8 - which are currently vacant - into studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments: five units per building.
It also involves constructing a new building to house 20 additional units. Priority residence would be given to homeless veterans and veterans at-risk for homelessness.
Currently, just three out of the 74 occupied units are home to non-veterans.
The project is being led by Victory Gardens I developer the Women’s Institute of Housing and Development, as part of the VA’s Enhanced Use Lease (EUL) initiative.
“Let’s do this,” said Olga Melendez, whose grandchildren live on the property.
Earlier in the meeting she urged VA officials to take careful precautions during construction, so as not to endanger current residents.
“There are children who live there and people with health issues,” Melendez said. “We need to ensure their safety.”
Jim Lavery, the project manager with the VA Office of Asset and Enterprise Management in Washington. D.C., facilitated the hearing.
He reassured Melendez that everyone would do their due diligence.
“We intend to make sure the developer complies with environmental regulations, building assessments and inspections, along with federal and local regulations,” Lavery said.
Another concern was that area veterans’ service organizations and homeless outreach groups had not been informed of the hearing beforehand. Lavery countered that these groups participated in an initial hearing that took place last year.
VA social worker Kristina Dalao pointed out that her team of homeless outreach workers meets monthly with area organizations and almost daily with homeless veterans.
“If there’s a homeless vet on our radar and Victory Gardens has an opening we try very hard to get them housed,” she said.
It will likely be several years before the new units are built and opened up to a waiting list of prospective residents. Lavery identified the “best case scenario” as May 2022.
“We don’t want this to be a five-year deal; we want it to be a one-and-a-half or two-year deal, but we can’t promise that because it’s dependent on financing,” he explained.
Newington VA site manager Gregg Lalka emphasized that the project could only benefit the community.
“The VA has been a leader nationwide in battling homelessness,” Lalka said.
“Anything we can do to continue that effort leadership is on board. I know it’s never a quick process, but anything we can do to expedite this we’re on board.”
US Army veteran Leslie Hardin has lived in Victory Gardens since it opened in 2013. She had previously been homeless for two years. As a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Hardin was hesitant to move into a community with others like her. That’s all changed now.
“If you built another Victory Gardens it would be filled before it was finished,” Hardin said. “I love living at Victory Gardens; it’s been wonderful. Veterans in this community, we have similar stories.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to enjoy the freedoms I fought to defend.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.