DETROIT—Thanks to Piquette Square, a permanent and supportive housing center for veterans in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, homeless veterans who had been struggling to get on their feet are now gaining solid footing and a more hopeful view of their future.
Robert is a good example. The 55-year-old Army veteran, who served in the 1970s, had been staying with relatives, bumped from house to house, before he moved into Piquette Square when the building opened in June 2010. He loves it here and has no intention of leaving.
After moving in and receiving support services and counseling, he was able to access pension and disability programs that he qualified for, but had not known about before.
He also started and now leads the building’s honor guard, which practices twice a week, and is called on for ceremonial occasions, both celebratory and somber.
Tim is part of the honor guard too. He came to Piquette Square after a brief stay in the VA Domiciliary. Before that, he lived in a van for six years. The transition was slow, but powerful, for Tim.
“I didn’t speak for four months in the domiciliary,” says Tim. “I was so used to isolation.”
For the veterans in Detroit looking for shelter, short-term housing is available through the domiciliary and shelters, but Piquette Square is unique in that it offers permanent, supportive housing. It’s one of only three facilities of its kind in the United States.
Tim says it was shocking to walk into a furnished apartment for the first time in years. Thanks to donations, the apartment also had a toaster and microwave, cleaning supplies and toiletries in the bathroom, fresh linens on the bed, and a box of food in the kitchen.
While Tim is still amazed that he has his own place, he is working with Southwest Housing Solutions to find a house. His goal is to be reunited with his family in a home.
Southwest Housing Solutions developed Piquette Square and owns and manages the four-story building that has 150 one-bedroom apartments for homeless veterans, along with counseling offices, a multi-purpose room and library, a computer room, laundry room and other social gathering places.
It is not temporary and it is not transitional; any homeless veteran that lands an apartment here can stay here for as long as he or she chooses. The current occupancy is 139, with many on a waiting list.
Veterans pay 30 percent of their income, up to $673/month, with Michigan State Housing Development Authority or Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing paying the balance.
Located on Brush Street, east of New Center on the site of the old Studebaker factory, Piquette Square has helped revitalize the neighborhood. Interestingly, it has not been tagged by graffiti like so many of the buildings in the area.
The modest apartments are well-received by the veterans, who come from a variety of homeless situations, from living on the streets; living with family, but bouncing around; or staying in homeless shelters.
Veterans are drawn to the fact that the building is safe, with a security guard, cameras in hallway, security codes for each apartment, and a community of veterans that look out for each other.
Chery Allen, veterans resource facilitator at Piquette Square, says that security is a big deal for vets because so many have trust issues, and a sense that no one cares. Many have been carrying around their own possessions on the streets or from shelter to shelter and are used to worrying about someone stealing their things.
Allen says that so many vets end up homeless because of the way they return from war, with some sort of condition that is not treated or diagnosed properly or quickly. And from there, things can spiral downward.
More often than not, they are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or another form of mental illness that has been undiagnosed. Allen says that families can only handle so much, and when veterans become estranged from their families, they start living on the streets. Many veterans become alcohol and drug abusers.
Every veteran at Piquette Square is assigned a counselor to help with life issues and emotional issues. Case management helps vets to access other needed services. And on-site services like job training, job searching, substance abuse treatment, and computer classes help vets move forward with their lives.
Tim, for example, lost his hearing in basic training when a grenade went off too close to his head. Before coming to Piquette, he had never received disability compensation for this injury.
The experience of living at Piquette Square is transformational for many vets. First off, they have a permanent place to call home.
Many time vets are reunited with their families because they learn to use a computer, establish email accounts, and find folks on Facebook. Allen says that a few veterans have reconnected with children not seen for decades.
But it’s the strong sense of community that vets soon feel at Piquette Square. It can be transformational in allowing vets who had struggled for years to now blossom.
“The biggest thing we’re creating here is a sense of community,” says Allen, who celebrates most of her holidays at Piquette Square with the vets. Her sense of warmth is contagious.
“People have been scattered for so long,” says Allen. “They may have met each other in shelters or on the streets, but now we’re really forming a nice community here.”
She says that the vets have a desire to be accepted and be a part of something. They find that “something” at Piquette Square, where they are not only part of a housing community, but part of a truly enriching environment.
Activities draw folks together to both learn and celebrate. Piquette Square has art classes taught by DIA staff, dinners brought in by VFW groups, regular movie nights hosted by a local movie buff, healthy cooking classes, and even a military mom who volunteers to mend clothing once a month.
It’s a rich, connected place, and one that brings about positive change. Veterans who are able can find work because they finally have a permanent address; many take advantage of the educational programs and workforce development programs offered on site.
Those that cannot work find their place in the community too. Some volunteer at the nearby Kiwanis book repository. Others volunteer doing general maintenance at the neighboring Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. One veteran recently won the Volunteer of the Year award at the TPLEX.
“They’re doing things and being recognized, and they’ve never been recognized before,” says Allen.
Want to help? Make a contribution or donate new household items. Contact Chery Allen, Veterans Resource Facilitator at 313-874-7014, ext. 350.