New building helps homeless veterans get back on the right path

Kelly Pickerel

Freedom House, a shelter for war veterans, recently relocated to a new building on Anita Drive. Russell Fennell is a Vietnam veteran who is currently residing there. Crickett Bowman | Daily Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

Russell Fennell never thought he’d end up as a resident at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter for war veterans.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be here,” said the 56-year-old Vietnam air veteran.

Fennell and 13 other men fill the rooms in the new facility on Anita Drive in Kent. The building had its grand opening last month after moving from a smaller house in town.

Matthew Slater, program manager, said homeless veterans make up 25 percent of the homeless population, and the number is growing throughout the county.

“Typically, here in Portage County, we might not think there are any,” he said. “We don’t really see them, but on any given night, there could be 500 (homeless) people.”

The growing need within the past few years put plans in motion for a shelter in Kent in August 2004, and by January 2005, a house was up and running on South Willow Street. Soon, it was apparent the small house was not large enough for the need.

The new Freedom House cost nearly $600,000 to build, with the Department of Veteran Affairs providing $400,000. The remainder was raised within the


Along with funding from the VA, local American Legions and Veterans of Foreign War help pay daily operating costs.

“There are a lot of different funding sources, but things can always change,” Slater said, adding United Way and the Ohio Department of Development provide some money also. “It’s my job to make sure we’re always funded. We’re always keeping an eye on that and searching for new grants.”

It costs the Freedom House roughly $55 a night per veteran. The VA provides nearly 60 percent of the costs – $33.01 – per night, while local agencies split the difference for the 14 residents.

Shaun Doyle, housing specialist at Freedom House, said the new facility on Anita Drive is a complete turnaround from the previous residence on South Willow Street.

“We were previously just in a house with three or four bedrooms,” he said. “This is much bigger in terms of space. We can hold 14 here, where at the old place we could only have eight. Everything is newer here. We have computers now, new appliances. Everything is bigger and better.”

Fennell said the Freedom House lives by its name and gives residents total freedom.

“You don’t have somebody standing over you with a bunch of hard, strict rules,” he said. “It makes you accountable for your own actions. They let you make the choices that you think are important for your own life. We have total freedom to more or less dictate our future.”

The shelter works with veterans on case plans that help find income and housing, as well as links to community resources. A chemical dependency advocate also provides them with daily counseling.

“We call ourselves a transitional facility,” Doyle said. “We’re a more unique place than other homeless shelters.”

The Freedom House also helps with the transition out of the shelter, offering after-care programs to continue promoting healthy and successful habits.

“We’re very concerned with what happens to our vets once they get housing,” Slater said. “We’re trying to change people’s thought-processing. You don’t end up in a homeless shelter typically in one day. There are some changes people go through. After-care is needed to help them build a group of healthy peers to help them with developing and healthy coping mechanisms.”

Even with the shelter’s success, Slater said one veteran is turned away each day.

“The need out there is unbelievable,” he said. “In the first year, we had 60 phone calls for emergency shelter, and in the next year that went up close to 60 percent. This year, we’ve had the most phone calls.”

The Freedom House allows veterans to stay for two years, but Slater said those successfully working with case plans and counseling typically stay six months.

Fennell has been at the shelter for four months, and he said the counseling he receives will help him outside of the house.

“We get to write our own case plans when we come in,” he said. “We tell them what our needs are and what we want to accomplish. They give us direction to make it a reality.

“I love Freedom House.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Pickerel at [email protected].