“Frank, somewhere between the jungles of Vietnam and the shores of the United States I got lost.”
So goes the poignant explanation from a former client that sticks with Frank Amalfitano, president and CEO of United Veterans Beacon House, a Bay Shore nonprofit that provides housing and “wraparound” services for those who have served in the military and their families.
Frank Halsey, said Amalfitano, was a client at Beacon House for two years, became self-sufficient, got back together with his ex-wife, then moved to Florida to help raise his grandchildren.
For Amalfitano, 71, of Smithtown, who served in the Vietnam War from 1968 to 1969, getting “lost” is an apt description of the struggles — homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and mental illness — facing many veterans on Long Island.
Beacon House has 250 clients on any given day, some in emergency shelters, others in transitional or permanent housing, Amalfitano said. He estimated that in Nassau and Suffolk counties there may be upward of 600 homeless veterans that need housing and other services daily.
“A lot of what you did in the military doesn’t convert to civilian employment,” Amalfitano said. “The military teaches combat troops to attack and defend. There is not much training for success in civilian life.” Amalfitano said that some former soldiers self-medicate for injuries or traumatic experiences in combat. This carries over into civilian life, he said. Along with substance abuse, combat veterans entering civilian life may be misdiagnosed, according to Amalfitano, delaying in their recovery.
Indeed, nationwide there are an estimated 40,000 veterans who are homeless on any given night, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C. Nearly half served during the Vietnam War, the organization says; the balance served in the Korean War, the Cold War, conflicts in Lebanon, Grenada and Panama, the Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan, and in the Iraq wars. In addition, the group says, about 1.4 million other veterans are considered at risk of homelessness because of poverty, lack of support networks, and overcrowded or substandard housing.
25th year helping vets
United Veterans Beacon House, established in 1994, aims to improve the lives of such veterans on Long Island. Suffolk County is home to more veterans — about 60,000 — than any other New York county, according to census estimates; Nassau adds 42,600 more veterans.
“For the past 25 years, United Veterans Beacon House’s mission has been to help veterans regain their self-worth and empower them with the tools necessary to rejoin their communities as independent and productive citizens,” said Amalfitano.
“We are committed to providing a fresh start and an opportunity for growth to those who have bravely served our country and, recently expanding to helping nonveterans and their families, who are now homeless with many other life issues.”
Beacon House manages 42 residences across Long Island: 33 in Suffolk and nine in Nassau with 350 beds for clients; the locations include emergency, transitional and permanent housing. Of the 42 housing locations, 19 are for veterans only and one of those is dedicated to female veterans. The residences operate using federal, state and county funds, Amalfitano said, adding that area corporations donate about $200,000 a year.
Beacon House also provides more than 250 veterans and families any given day with transportation to receive health care at the VA hospitals and clinics, job training and placement, learning such life skills as balancing a checkbook, maintaining their living environments and scheduling appointments, and with help accessing financial benefits for veterans.
“Training for the clients in life skills is provided in the houses,” Amalfitano said. “It is often performed in groups or one-on-one.”
Clients find their way to Beacon House through a variety of sources — crisis hotlines, social services agencies, law enforcement, family members or self-referrals. The organization is available 24/7 to respond to calls for help, he said. A case manager is contacted and a pre-intake evaluation of the client is done over the phone. Once a client has been referred, they are picked up by Beacon House drivers and placed in emergency housing that day. The next day, a case manager is assigned to assess the client’s condition and needs. Then case workers and the client develop a plan to transition the client from emergency to transitional housing.
The length of stay, ranging from one year to many years, at a residence generally depends on the guidelines from funding organizations. There is flexibility to accommodate such extenuating circumstances as house repairs or client hospitalizations. In addition, residential clients must adhere to Beacon House’s rules, including meeting attendance (for example, Alcohol Anonymous and other in-house meetings), staying sober if substance abuse has been a problem, obeying curfews, and performing chores and helping with meal preparation.
By and large, according to United Veterans Beacon House, the veterans who seek single-room housing are male; just a third are female. Among families, 90 percent are women with children.
A chance meeting
Happenstance brought Amalfitano to his calling to helping veterans at United Veterans Beacon House.
In 1996, Amalfitano was working as a supervisor for Waste Management Corp.’s Long Island City complaint department, having sold his own trucking company to Waste Management in 1995.
He was called one day to find out who was dumping garbage in another company’s trash container in Kings Park. The complaining company told him the guilty party was the thrift store owner next door.
Walking into the store, Amalfitano was greeted with a question from the man behind the counter: “Are you a veteran?”
Amalfitano was perplexed but said, “Yes.”
The man continued, “Vietnam?”
Amalfitano said: “Yes, what’s it to you pal?”
Undeterred, the man said, “Welcome home.”
“I remember saying to him, ‘I have been home since 1970, after serving in the U.S. Air Force from ‘66 to ‘70 right out of high school,’” Amalfitano recalled.
“Yes,” Amalfitano said the man continued, “But no one welcomed us home … did they?” He added, “So for all these years I say, ‘Welcome Home’ to every Vietnam vet.”
The man in the thrift store was Salvatore Madonia, founder of United Veterans Beacon House, which was then run by volunteers.
Madonia took Amalfitano to the back of the store and showed him pamphlets about Beacon House’s services, a food pantry, clothing and temporary beds for the veterans.
Amalfitano said he paused, then decided to give Beacon House free garbage pickup. He also became a volunteer.
Three years later, Madonia resigned from his leadership position after being diagnosed with cancer. Amalfitano, who was on the board of directors, became president and CEO.
“When I first took over, United Veterans of Beacon House was $20,000 in debt because it was an all-volunteer organization that was loosely run,” Amalfitano said. With no grants or funding sources, Beacon House operated on good will, according to Amalfitano. For instance, volunteers would drive from Queens to Montauk picking up homeless vets along the way that needed temporary housing.
“I came from the corporate world and decided things had to be done differently in order to grow the organization and help more veterans,” Amalfitano said.
He first closed houses, like one in Islip, and reorganized others, like one in Rockaway, Queens, that was in the red. Amalfitano restructured how the residences operated, then reopened them, and he started pursuing funding sources. Amalfitano also moved operations from Kings Park to its current location in Bay Shore.
At the same time, Beacon House continued to recruit volunteers.
These days, most volunteers come from Long Island corporations that organize community service days for their staff. They might spend a day fixing residences, gardening or building a shed, for example. Individuals and Eagle Scouts have also donated their time and talent.
Vets among staff
Morris Miller, 72, of Massapequa, a decorated Army combat veteran who served in Vietnam and is State Veteran Hall of Fame inductee and president of the Executive Board of Volunteer Services at the Northport VA Hospital, credited Amalfitano with turning Beacon House “into one of the best homeless veterans’ organizations in the country."
“They don’t just provide a room for the vets like some shelters; they care for them and their well-being every day,” Miller said.
Of Beacon House's 108 paid employees, 48 are veterans. Besides the executive staff, other employees include support and administrative staff, case managers, house managers and drivers. Most employees have been with the organization for 15 years.
Doug Ruiz, 57, of Medford, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Lebanon from 1982 to 1983, said he fell on hard times after he was discharged in 1984 and returned home to the Bronx. Ruiz said he became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and homelessness followed.
In 2000, he sought help at the VA Hospital in Northport. After a year of treatment, the VA told him that Beacon House was hiring house managers for a group home in Islip. Ruiz applied and got the job.
The road back for Ruiz included AA and recovery meetings provided by Beacon House.
He has been working for Beacon House since 2001 and is now director of housing, charged with tracking residential projects and overseeing staff and program directors.
“Housing assistance programs include housing for veterans’ families and men suffering from substance abuse and mental health issues; supportive housing for women with substance abuse issues; emergency shelters; and permanent housing for adults living with HIV / AIDS,” Ruiz said.
One housing program, in particular, he said, requires veterans pay 30 percent of their salary toward the rent; the other 70 percent is subsidized. This is critical to helping veterans get reintegrated into the process of paying rent on a monthly basis, Ruiz explained.
“Beacon House provides a safe and structured environment to give you a solid footing for life,” Ruiz said, adding that gratitude for Beacon House helps him give back to vets. “They have been great to me.”
Beacon House’s main funding agencies have been the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the VA, New York State’s Department of Labor and the Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance, the United Way of Long Island, and Suffolk and Nassau counties’ departments of social services.
In his drive to grow Beacon House, however, Amalfitano knew it was crucial to form close relationships with outside organizations and pursue grants and funding from corporations and foundations across Long Island. Among recent donors have been Sterling Bank, 1-800-Flowers and a slew of nonprofits and foundations.
“Frank had a vision from the start that through getting grants and expanding our offerings we can better serve homeless veterans and other homeless persons on Long Island,” said Jackie DeLeonardis, 58, of Kings Park, vice president of client services, who has worked for Beacon House for 19 years.
A certified drug and alcohol counselor who started as a case manager, DeLeonardis noted the significant and rapid growth of the organization over the years.
“We have 23 programs that we manage for our clients and we are adding more this year,” she said. And the integration of the programs helps the client "move forward one step at a time.”
DeLeonardis said her daily duties are split between ensuring that program directors and staff have everything they need to serve the clients, and writing grant proposals. Her motivation is to see the full-circle growth of the clients, she said. Although she did not serve in the military, her husband, Larry, 62, was in the Marine Corps.
Committed to growth
DeLeonardis said that 2019 will be a growth year for Beacon House. With $1.5 million from the state Office of Temporary & Disability Assistance-Homeless Housing Assistance Program, Beacon House will purchase and rebuild two homes — a single-family in Medford and a two-family Copiague — for homeless veterans and their families. Those are scheduled to open in July.
Under Nassau County’s Office of Community Development, Beacon House acquired a Freeport property that the Home Depot Foundation is helping to renovate as a single-family home for a veteran and family. That property, for which the foundation donated materials, is scheduled to open in August.
And with HUD Housing Opportunity for Persons with HIV/AIDS, Beacon House will open its fourth home for single males and females with HIV/AIDS in Smithtown in October.
Amalfitano speaks of the belief deeply embedded at Beacon House: Never give up on a veteran.
“I’ve dealt with hundreds of veterans over the past 20 years that have used services over and over. Some people need more than one stay to get their life back on track, and we will be there when they are ready,” he said.
Galas celebrate success stories
Speaking at the 2018 Gala for United Veterans Beacon House, Carter Ward, 63, of Hempstead, told 445 attendees at The Heritage Club in Farmingdale the problems he encountered adjusting to civilian life after being discharged from the U.S. Navy. After serving from 1974 to 1983, including during a conflict in Lebanon, he described his fall into homelessness and living in shelters as a “dog eat dog existence each day.”
In 2016, Ward said, his life changed when he met Beacon House's Doug Ruiz at a job fair sponsored by the Nassau County Department of Social Services. Ruiz took a chance on Ward, offering him a position as house manager at a Hempstead residence. Ward received training in managing the veterans, including making sure they signed in each day, did their chores and learned other life skills.
Ward now oversees three locations (two in Islip and one in Hempstead), managing a total of 28 veterans.
“When I got the houses in Islip, I didn’t have a car and I had to take two trains and a bus just to get to Islip," Ward said. Then one day Beacon House president and CEO Frank Amalfitano lent Ward a 1999 Saturn that had been donated to the organization, Ward said, adding, "That’s just the kind of person Frank is.”
When Ward bought his own car, he gave the car back so other veterans could use it.
Last year’s gala — the organization’s largest fundraising event to date — raised about $280,000, according to Amalfitano,
This year’s gala, celebrating Beacon House’s 25th anniversary, is Oct. 16 at The Heritage Club at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale. Cocktails are at 6:30 p.m. and dinner follows. Tickets are $200 and can be reserved online at uvbh.org. For information, contact Tina Sferrazza at email@example.com or call 631-665-1571.
United Veterans Beacon House welcomes donations and volunteers. For information, visit uvbh.org or contact Tina Sferrazza, director of development, at 631-665-1571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.