Piquette Square: Sustainable housing offers chance at new lives for veterans

No one understands what it means to have a home than someone who has been homeless. And no one understands homelessness like a troubled veteran trying to find their way back home.

Southwest Solutions understood the dilemma when it conceived Piquette Square, a permanent, supportive housing development exclusively for homeless veterans. Opened in 2010, the four-story residential complex at 6221 Brush, has 150 apartments and over 11,000 square feet of common area and commercial space, with plans to develop a small park immediately north of the building. The housing development, the second of its kind in Michigan, was financed through 14 different sources, led by the Michigan State Housing Development Corporation (MSHDA).

Piquette Square offers mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, job training, computer skills, and social programs. Most of all, it offers a home. Odester Lawrence and Daryl Hamilton found home in the fraternal camaraderie of fellow veterans. Army/Marines, active/support service, the shared experience of serving the nation is understood, if not spoken.

Lawrence, an Army veteran, has fought her way back to stability from years of addiction and inner struggles. She is happy to live among friends, a short distance from her employer -- the John D. Dingall VA Medical Center. Her life went downhill almost immediately after discharge from the military in 1982.

She left an abusive relationship and landed at the Downtown YMCA. "I started using drugs, I was drinking a lot. I got tired. I called the VA." Suffering from depression, she was admitted to the Dingell VA Medical Center and later discharged to Emmanuel House transitional housing.

She eventually qualified for the Compensated Work Therapy program Compensated Work Therapy program provided by the VA, which allows clients to work under the guidance of a social worker.

Piquette Square offers Lawrence a safe place with a social outlet. "I didn’t want to be out there by myself," she says. There are between 2,000 and 8,000 homeless veterans in Detroit, according to Lisa Todd, Residential Services Coordinator at Piquette Square. About 30 percent are women. As a result, few women live at Piquette Square.

"Women are a lot more private about being homeless," Todd says. Homeless women have a higher degree of anxiety and insecurity, which is further complicated for veterans. "Women veterans don’t tend to identify themselves as vets," Todd says. "They identify themselves as homeless. It’s a population, across the country, that we know is a hidden population."

After two tours of duty in the Marines, Hamilton worked various truck driving jobs, including a stint with the U.S. Post Office, until his drinking got the best of him. "Lost the best job I ever had," he says of the post office job. "Me and my wife had problems. She went on substance abuse. I started drinking heavy, I couldn’t hold on to my apartment, lived on the street for a year or two." He ended up at the VA, which placed him in the Volunteers of America transitional housing complex, near Piquette Square.

Since then, Hamilton has been clean, working as a landscaper for Greening of Detroit and living a responsible life. He wants to move into information technology and plans to take an online course this winter while laid off from his Greening job.

Unlike Lawrence who needs a lot of social interaction, Hamilton is more reserved. "I'm a 'to myself person.' I got my TV, computer, and playstation. I come home from work, head up to my apartment, get on my computer for about two hours, play games for two hours, have something to eat, then it's time to go to bed."

He routinely cooks his own meals. Occasionally, he'll come out and talk with other residents. "I like it here. You get to see all the fellas and you get to know some of 'em. When I first came here, it wasn’t about military; it wasn’t about nothin'. But now it's gotten to the point that I like it here because of the fellas; they're nice people. We all have been in the service, we all connect with each other."

Residents can live at Piquette Square as long as they pay rent, which is at least $50 a month. Lawrence and Hamilton have no intention of leaving. "I like it here," Hamilton says. "The people here are nice. They have programs here. And around the corner you have the (VA) medical center."

However, the  Piquette Square staff actively works on job placement and motivational training to encourage residents to move out. "We had a gentleman who just got a job in Ohio making $17 an hour," Todd says. "He knew it was time for him to move on. If they're in that place and they don’t need this anymore, we highly encourage them to move on."

Theresa Paruszkiewicz, who works with the Homeless Veterans for Integration Program at Piquette Square and other shelters in the region, recalls one veteran who moved into the building after living in his car. "In the same week he got a job from Ford. Now he’s making incredible money."

Paruszkiewicz connects homeless vets to resources. About 73 percent of her clients find jobs. "We are employment based, but part of being employment based is getting sustainable housing. Just this morning I helped six veterans complete their application for Piquette. I primarily find them a job, whatever supports they need, whether it’s transportation assistance." It’s challenging to stay in contact with her clients because they move around so much. Once she places them in Piquette, she focuses on retention. "I don’t want to find them a job for one day. I want to find them a job that will provide them sustainable housing."

Many Piquette Square residents are deeply grateful for a place of their own. Paruszkiewicz recalls a woman who sat outside her apartment for two days before entering. "She was homeless for so long that she couldn’t believe it was hers. She couldn’t take ownership of it. Every knock on the door she thought we were coming to take her keys back. It's a horrible feeling."

For some, this is transitional space from wandering nowhere to going somewhere; a small apartment with everything you need to call home. Others may stay as long as their lives will allow. Most come and go somewhere with a renewed sense of purpose. Most find a job while they're there and form meaningful relationships.

"This is my family," Lawrence says. "They put up a lot from me. They're just like my family here. It's beautiful here."

Darryl adds, "It’s like home. I haven't met nobody I really dislike. All the people you walk past say, 'How you doin'?'"

Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
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Dennis Archambault is a Detroit-based freelance writer.