PERRY POINT — After more than a decade’s worth of deliberating a future for dozens of empty houses at the Perry Point VA Medical Center, officials broke new ground on Saturday for a project designed to house veterans at risk of homelessness in the coming years.
The initiative, dubbed HELP Veterans Village, will open 75 apartments through a combination of renovations and new constructions. The first residents will begin moving in by next spring with tentative completion being fall 2018, according to officials.
At Saturday’s groundbreaking ceremony, scores of people sat under a tent on 3rd Street to keep out of the light rain. Gov. Larry Hogan gave the keynote address, starting with a string of thanks to officials who helped bring the project to fruition, then to those in attendance who had served in the military.
“On behalf of a grateful state, I say thank you,” he said. “And I pledge to all of you that our veterans will continue to have a governor, and an entire administration, that will be working and fighting on your behalf each and every day.”
For years, many of the dozens of houses at Perry Point have sat in varying states of disrepair. Since 2005, when a federal enhanced use lease committee included Perryville Mayor James Eberhardt to discuss the possibility of a similar project, progress has been mired in miscommunications and bureaucratic shortcomings.
In July 2009, the VA put out a notice to gauge nonprofit interest in developing up to 100 units. That proposal, and the couple that followed, prompted concerns from the town about specifics of the project.
HELP USA, a nonprofit based in New York, won the contract to rehabilitate Perry Point homes in 2011, and in that same year published a first draft of its project plans. Local concerns persisted, however, including that there weren’t enough homeless veterans in the area to necessitate a project of that scale. The initiative made little headway until 2014.
In January of that year, both Hogan and Delegate Kevin Hornberger (R-Cecil) came into office, and the latter made the Perry Point development a focal point of his service. He has since said that on his very first day in office he called Ken Holt, the secretary of the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, to speak about the project.
On Saturday, he considered the groundbreaking the biggest day of his political tenure so far.
“This is equity that has come full-circle,” Hornberger said. “I ran on this, I focused on this, and today it all came together. And it didn’t come together because of me, it came together because of the team that we formed to be able to make this successful.”
Hornberger’s personal ties to Perry Point run deep. His father, Douglas, worked as the supervisor of the village, and he would come there after school to wait until the work day ended. It was also at Perry Point that Douglas met his wife, Margaret, who worked as a public affairs officer at Perry Point for many years until her recent retirement.
Hogan and Hornberger were joined at the groundbreaking by a number of other officials, including Holt and Thomas Hameline, the president and CEO of HELP USA. Sabrina Clark, the director of voluntary service at the Department of Veterans Affairs, sang the national anthem while Adam Robinson Jr., the director of the VA Maryland Health Care System, gave special remarks.
Uniformed veterans speckled the crowd, including Charlie Thomas, a past commander of the Perryville American Legion Susquehanna Post No. 135 and former resident of the village at Perry Point.
“It’s something that should’ve been done a long time ago when they started vacating the houses,” said Thomas, 73, of the now started project. “A long time coming, believe me. It’s a great day for Cecil County.”
But for local government, some questions remain. Eberhardt, mayor of Perryville, told the Whig last month that some questions about who exactly would be filling the vacancies and what effect a new population would have on the small town are still to be answered.
He also noted more nuanced concerns, such as the fact that the Perryville Volunteer Fire Company would face a tightened budget as a result. Since the VA has plans to bolster its own fire department, it will no longer require those services from the town, which means the Perryville fire company will receive less money.
HELP USA is investing $23.3 million in Veterans Village, with major funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, the National Equity Fund, Home Depot, Citibank and Northrop Grumman.
The 75 new housing units will come in the form of both renovated homes and period recreations. Thirty-three buildings will be constructed into 66 one-bedroom apartments; eight buildings will be turned into eight two-bedroom apartments; and one building will be converted to a three-bedroom apartment.
According to a fact sheet provided by HELP USA, the future tenant population will be made up of homeless veterans or veteran families who meet federal eligibility requirements. These people will qualify for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (HUD-VASH), so they will have access to the VA’s resources on the campus. Every home in the village will have subsidized rent.
This focus on providing permanent housing for homeless individuals as quickly as possible has been called the “Housing First” approach started by the VA under the Obama administration. And officials at Saturday’s ceremony used the opportunity to sound a rallying cry against homelessness.
“I want to end veteran homelessness. Will you join me?” Hornberger said to an ovation.
After the groundbreaking ceremony on 3rd Street, attendees met for a reception at the Perry Point Mansion House. There, Thomas spoke to Hornberger and had a picture taken with several other American Legion members.
Thomas has known Hornberger since he was a boy — he lived in the village when Hornberger’s father was the supervisor.
“I told [Kevin], ‘You got re-elected today,’” Thomas said.