Doors open on new home for veterans
Late U.S. Navy veteran John Arthur Johnson served on the board of Operation Stand Down (OSD) Rhode Island for 20 years, dedicating his life to supporting other soldiers. And though Johnson is gone, that mission will continue in his name.
OSD opened two new properties Monday that will provide housing and other supportive services to six Rhode Island veterans. The properties are named in honor of Johnson, as well as U.S. Air Force veteran Jean Louise Mayo, and Army SPC Ronald Blake, who was killed in action in the Vietnam War.
‚ÄúThese homes will be about the future; it will be about men and women rebuilding their lives,‚ÄĚ said Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts. ‚ÄúJohnston will be a great home for people who really need a home.‚ÄĚ
May Johnson, widow of the former board member, said her family is ‚Äúgreatly honored‚ÄĚ by the recognition. She knows her husband would have been honored, too.
‚ÄúI know he‚Äôs looking down, smiling from ear to ear,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúWorking with veterans was his life.‚ÄĚ
Robert Blake, brother of the late Ronald Blake, shared how much his family misses Ronald. Days after a letter from Ronald confirmed that he would take on the responsibility of Godfather for Robert‚Äôs daughter, Debbie, the family received a telegram that Ronald was missing in action.
Speaking on behalf of former client Jean Louise Mayo, OSD Special Projects Manager Sherry Elderkin said Mayo had a simple way about her that could light up a room.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre the luckiest people to have ever come cross Jean Louise Mayo,‚ÄĚ she said.
The property is located on the 1010 Hartford Avenue campus of Operation Stand Down‚Äôs headquarters. Funding to rehabilitate the site came from a combination of state and federal dollars, and now that the $1.3 million project is complete, OSD has assumed control of all but one house atop the Johnston hill.
Since its inception 20 years ago under the direction of Board President Anthony DeQuattro, OSD has opened five other facilities with enough units for 43 veterans from West Warwick to Providence. Another property in Westerly is under construction and near completion.
DeQuattro and his fellow veterans on the board, past and present, continue to identify properties in order to eradicate homelessness among veterans. While homelessness in this population is decreasing nationally, Rhode Island ‚Äď the state with the highest deployment figures in the country ‚Äď continues to struggle.
‚ÄúVeteran homelessness has gone up 20 percent in the last year alone in Rhode Island,‚ÄĚ said Executive Director Erik Wallin, Esq.
Congressman Jim Langevin called those figures a ‚Äúnational disgrace‚ÄĚ that must be changed.
Still, Operation Stand Down has accomplished a lot. Wallin notes that ‚Äú20 years has changed things,‚ÄĚ and the organization now has the backing of Rhode Islanders, who in November 2012 passed the $94 million affordable housing bond issue that will support veteran housing opportunities.
Cardi‚Äôs Furniture and Barbara Sokoloff Associates are among OSD‚Äôs biggest corporate partners.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôve all come together to serve a population that desperately needs us,‚ÄĚ said Governor Lincoln Chafee.
OSD also has solid support from local, state and federal officials. DeQuattro‚Äôs dealings with those officials was a point of humor throughout Monday‚Äôs event, with many elected officials admitting that they have been on the receiving end of one of the board president‚Äôs tirades.
‚ÄúFor more than 20 years, Tony DeQuattro has dedicated himself to making sure no one is left behind. This is an important milestone,‚ÄĚ said Senator Jack Reed.
Governor Chafee applauded DeQuattro for his persistence, and said that his motives are well intentioned.
‚ÄúNot enough was being done,‚ÄĚ he said.
Chafee hopes that trend is being reversed, both by OSD and by the state, where nine bills supporting veterans are currently before the General Assembly. The state has established a website to connect veterans with resources as well (www.veterans.ri.gov).
DeQuattro was quick to shift the focus back to the veterans that OSD serves.
‚ÄúThis is truly God‚Äôs work and we try to do it the best we can,‚ÄĚ he said.
In addition to transitional and permanent housing, Operation Stand Down provides social services, employment training and connects veterans with health care and other resources provided by agencies like the VA.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs amazing all you‚Äôve done,‚ÄĚ said General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. ‚ÄúBecause of what you‚Äôve done, people have what they deserve ‚Äď the wrap-around services that people need and deserve.‚ÄĚ
Raimondo said she hoped to bring a message of gratitude both to the veterans and active duty service members and also to their families.
‚ÄúThank you for your bravery and for your courage and for your sacrifice and for all that you do to make this state and this country a more perfect and free place,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúWe do remember and we do appreciate and we do honor all that you‚Äôve done.‚ÄĚ
Barbara Fields, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said she too is ‚Äúforever grateful‚ÄĚ for the sacrifices of veterans. She is glad to be in a position to help soldiers, noting that American troops helped her father escape from the Holocaust.
‚ÄúHousing for veterans and ending homelessness among veterans is a top priority,‚ÄĚ she said.
DeQuattro concedes that much work remains ahead if homelessness is truly to be eradicated. Through housing, social services and the support of his board, staff and volunteers, he wants Rhode Island veterans to know that they are appreciated.
‚ÄúThis is my main mission in life,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúSomeone walks through that door, they‚Äôre taken care of.‚ÄĚ