Drugs Threaten New $11.5 Million Housing for Veterans

By Desiree Bowie 10/02/14

VanKeuren Square in upstate New York offered homeless veterans a new chance, but became a threat to those in the early stages of recovery.

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VanKeuren Square is a brand new $11.5 million dollar 50 unit housing structure that opened in May. It is the first housing development in Syracuse, N.Y., created specifically for homeless veterans. Al Salinas, 59, a disabled veteran, and his wife were living in their car before they moved in May into VanKeuren Square.

"At first it was beautiful and wonderful," Salinas said. But before long, some tenants began urinating and vomiting in the hallways, fighting, bringing prostitutes into the building, and openly buying drugs on the property, he said.

Salinas’ wife is scared to leave their apartment for fear of what she may encounter in the hallways. "Now she's saying, 'Maybe we were better off in the car,'" Salinas said.

Salinas and other veterans who live in VanKeuren Square say that the terrible behavior of their fellow neighbors—fighting, drug use, and excessive drunkenness—crippled the positive intention of the housing development, which features a computer lab, an exercise room, and other amenities.

Officials of the VA Medical Center and Housing Visions acknowledge there have been problems at the building and are working on addressing the issues. Ralph "Sonny" Carelli was one of the first veterans to move into VanKeuren in February. He's been sober since October after a long history of alcohol and drug abuse.

"Now I have to step over drug baggies, urine and beer in the hallway," he said. "It's not a safe environment for those of us in early recovery."

Historically, the VA has required veterans to seek help for their substance abuse issues before they would help them find housing. VanKeuren set a new precedent; veterans here are allowed to have housing and then deal with their substance abuse issues.

"They've had seven months and they are not dealing with these guys' issues," Carelli said. "The VA needs to say, 'Hey you've got a substance abuse problem and you need to do something about it or you are going to be removed.'"

Robert McLean, a VA spokesman, said members of the VA's behavioral health team met with the staff of Housing Visions last week to develop a plan to address the veterans' concerns.

"We are committed to ensuring that VanKeuren Square remains a safe and secure living environment for veteran residents," he said.

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Desiree Bowie is a writer and movie lover from Los Angeles, California. Follow her on Twitter @dangerbowie