Volunteers of America to buy houses in Northeastern Pennsylvania for homeless vets

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WILKES-BARRE — Upwards of 25 homeless military veterans in Northeastern Pennsylvania could get a chance to buy their own house in coming years thanks to a new Volunteers Of America plan to buy and rehabilitate 150 residences statewide.

“We looked at eight houses here today,” VOA Pennsylvania CEO Melissa Vayda said during a stop at the agency’s thrift store on Wilkes-Barre’s South Main Street. “We’ll probably make offers on three or four.”

With any luck, she added, the first local house will be occupied by April 1.

Dubbed “Homeward Bound,” the program is an offshoot of an existing effort that helped 120 veterans — 90 of them homeless — rent housing last year. In that program, called Supportive Services for Veteran families, the VOA signed the lease and worked with the vet to assure he or she got the support needed to get back on their feet and keep paying rent.

The new program is more ambitious, though it keeps much of that programs basic strategy.

Veterans must apply for the program and, once selected, must be able to rent the new home without financial assistance for one year. Rent will typically be below market rates, Vayda said, estimating in many cases it could be around $600 a month.

After the year, the veteran can buy the building for what it cost the VOA. “We’re not here to make a profit,” Vayda said.

The organization looks for houses already available below market cost, typically because they are in foreclosure or owned by a city eager to get them back in private hands.

“The average price for us is probably about $10,000,” Vayda said, though some have been nabbed for $1 from banks glad to get a foreclosure off the books, while others can hover near $20,000 but likely need little work beyond paint and new rugs.

The VOA is using some of its own money — it has an annual budget of about $9 million, Vayda said — but is also relying on volunteers as well as contractors willing to do work free or at cost to rehab the houses. In some cases companies cover costs or provide material and workers in exchange for naming the house after the company, garnering both good will and publicity.

The VOA is also applying for grants that can cover costs.

The project may end up providing low-cost family housing, but it isn’t low cost. All told, Vayda estimated, the 150 homes will total about $2 million to buy and renovate.

The most important thing for a veteran applying for a home is proof of service, Vayda said.

The VOA will help provide “wrap around services” to the vet, meaning everything from financial help to social services. The organization also provides a welcome-home kit with needed supplies such as bed and bath linens or kitchen and cleaning supplies.

Vayda said this is a first-of-its kind program for VOA and that it may become a model for branches in other states. The need is large. “Nationwide, 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night.” In Pennsylvania, nearly 1,500 veterans are homeless according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans website.