Veteran Garie Spencer spins around on a red stool at a round table emblazoned with a 1960s Coca-Cola logo and says he feels right at home.
"It’s like going down to the old Walgreens [in downtown Provo] and having ice cream," says Spencer, who lives in Salt Lake City’s Freedom Landing on North Temple with 108 other formerly homeless veterans.
Fewer homeless veterans
The number of veterans living on the streets in Utah was 33 in 2012, and another 297 were in transitional housing funded through the Department of Veterans Affairs or in area shelters, says Al Hernandez, who runs the VA’s homeless program. Hernandez expects the 2013 numbers — due out in April — to be even lower. The federal government has been spending millions of dollars to try to end veteran homelessness.
On Thursday, the complex will celebrate the opening of Freedom Diner, a kitchen and dining room where the veterans will be able to gather for coffee in the morning, cook for one another and share meals.
"It’s nice," says Vietnam veteran Charlie Anderson, a cook who has had to cobble together a kitchen, of sorts, with an array of small appliances — everything from an electric skillet to a rice cooker — in his apartment. "We’ve complained about this long enough."
Freedom Landing, owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Salt Lake City, is in an old Days Inn, so the motel rooms-turned-apartments lack kitchens.
The new diner just off the lobby was once a breakfast room and, after the Housing Authority turned the motel into transitional housing for homeless veterans, a television room.
Now, it is decorated in Americana, with big blue and white floor tiles, the Coca-Cola tables and stools, and a huge bank of red cabinets stocked with canned goods, pasta, rice, cereal and even toilet paper, donated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Veterans will have music from a jukebox where they can play CDs, dock their music players or listen to the radio.
One of the two stoves is wheelchair accessible, as are some of the counters and tables.
"Some of them were cooks in the Army. They’ll have to cut their recipes in half," joked Diana Leka, director of homeless programs for the housing authority.
"There are just some things you can’t cook in a microwave," says Kelly Olsen, one of the five female veterans living at Freedom Landing. She served in the Navy in the 1980s.
The diner will be good for making friends, she says. "I tend to isolate sometimes. I think we’re going to have a blast here."
Charles Oliver, who served in the Navy and Army, pats his belly and says he doesn’t expect to eat too much in the diner.
"I gotta reduce a little bit," he says.
Nonetheless, says Oliver, "This is a real blessing."
The goal of transitional housing like Freedom Landing is to help the veterans gain stability so they can live independently and work. The Department of Veterans Affairs has five case managers on site who work with the veterans, and the VA pays the housing authority a per diem amount for each veteran, which covers the agency’s costs. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of the veterans at Freedom Landing have jobs and pay 30 percent of their rent, Leka says.
The project began three years ago as part of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015.
"We may be the first of the states and Salt Lake may be the first community in ending homeless veterans," says Bill Nighswonger, executive director of the housing authority.
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