(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — “Not enough is being done…”; “I wish somebody would do something about it…; “They should…”; — People want help for homeless veterans, but they’re not sure where to begin. For one group in Clarendon, helping veterans began with their own efforts in their own town.
Tom Eaton is the president of the Board of Directors of the Allegheny Valley Veteran’s Center. He’s also the town’s mayor. And, he’s a veteran of the United States Marine Corps who served from 1987 to 1993 and did a tour of duty in the Gulf War.
Some years ago, Allegheny Valley Elementary School in Clarendon was closed– the school was consolidated with Warren County School District, Eaton said. In 2018, Eaton asked the Warren County School District to transfer ownership of the building to the borough. Then he petitioned to change the facility’s zoning. It’s been hours at school board meetings (Eaton said he has attended 47 school board meetings).
“I feel it’s a call of duty (to support veterans),” Eaton said.
The red tape seemingly behind him, Eaton and “hundreds of volunteers and donors” have worked to repurpose the second floor of the school into transitional housing for homeless veterans. They’re sectioning the classrooms into “cubicles.” Each cubicle has four bedrooms. Each room has its own door, a dresser, a bed, and a sitting chair. They already have 20 rooms completed. None of the rooms have TVs, and they won’t.
“We want people interacting with other people,” Eaton explained. “A lot of these veterans are suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and they would hide away all day in their rooms if they could. We want to get them back into the routine of society.”
Each cubicle shares a washer and dryer, and a computer with an Internet connection. (A room in the building is leased to WestPA and houses their fiber optic hub for Clarendon. WestPA pays rent, and also has helped “with anything we need,” Eaton said — “They’ve been Johnny on the spots.”)
It would have been easier to simply house four veterans in one big room, rather than framing in and insulating four separate rooms, but easier isn’t best.
“We could have had bunkbeds, but we want the veteran to have his individuality and pride in himself,” Eaton said.
Two common areas are replete with kitchens. Each of those spaces will be shared by 16 veterans. A shower room has 6 shower stalls, including an accessible shower. A rec room at the end of the hall will house a pool table, has a room perfect for two dart boards, and has a sink and counter area for snacks and beverages. A room in the back will be set up as a gathering space to “meet with visitors, hold job interviews, meet with a priest, or whatever,” Eaton said.
As of June 14, Allegheny Valley Veteran’s Center had only one resident. The first resident. A Vietnam War veteran who served from 1971 to 1973.
The outpouring of support keeps coming. The facility is situated on more than 15 acres, and a tree service asked to be paid only for the gasoline it used to cut the trees. A volunteer is painting murals throughout the center. A surveyor did his work for free. Local fourth graders painted some 120 original works that will be framed and hung in each of the veterans’ rooms (the center is planning to hold a pizza party with the children and will judge the paintings and award the winners).
“It’s just been a bunch of people,” said Lee Borger, the vice president of the board of directors. “An 80-year-old just came and swept the floors for us. The response has been fantastic.”
Borger isn’t a veteran, yet he’s immersed in the efforts at the center.
“This is where it started,” Borger said. “This is my way of helping the veterans and serving the country.”
When the building is completely rehabbed, it will serve 32 veterans all at once. They hope to have all 32 rooms ready by September of this year. On average, Eaton said, a homeless veteran stays in transition housing for about 6 months before they move out. That’s 64 veterans each year that could be directly impacted by the center. Clarendon has a population of 454 people. That means that in a little more than seven years, the facility could potentially serve a group of homeless veterans numbering as many as its entire population.
The furniture, appliances and just about everything else for veterans is being supplied by the Veterans Miracle Center of Erie.
“All they do is give,” Eaton said of the Veterans Miracle Center of Erie. “If we had had to buy all the furniture, we’d still be back at four rooms. It humbles you — it really does.”
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It’s a multi-purpose facility. The Allegheny Valley Veteran’s Center also will house the Clarendon borough office. The gym is rented to Extreme Athletix — a local cheerleading squad. After the veterans’ rooms are completed, Eaton said they will move on to phase 2, where they plan to create transitional housing for homeless mothers and children on the first floor of the building.