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Aging veterans don’t want to leave West Hempstead group home

Former Marine Corps sergeant James Brooks, who along with eight other veterans shared a house, spoke on June 16, 2017, about the high cost of living on Long Island. The veterans had been living at a house operated by the Family and Children's Association, a nonprofit, which has given them notice to vacate, saying the house was only intended as temporary housing for veterans in need. (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

For years, the eight men had shared a house and a common bond: military veterans with broken bodies and little money, trying to make it on high-cost Long Island.

They cooked for each other and looked out for each other. The younger guys — the men currently in the house range from their late 50s to their 80s — helped the older ones get around. And they have been comforted by a shared understanding of what it is to be a veteran in a region where relatively few have experienced the sacrifice of military life.

But now they have a higher hurdle to clear. Their landlord, the Family and Children’s Association, has told them they’ll have to leave. Representatives of the nonprofit agency, which has operated the West Hempstead home as veterans’ housing for the past 14 years, say it is no longer suitable for men increasingly beset by age-related ailments, such as crippling arthritis and severe diabetes.

Several deadlines the agency has given them to move have come and gone, but the four men who remain have declined to leave.

They don’t want to be split up.

“We had until last week, but I’m still looking for a place I can afford,” James Brooks, who has lived at the house on Woodfield Road for almost 10 years, said in June. “They want to put Pete in a nursing home. But we just want to stay together.”

“Pete” is Peter Abrahamsen, 82. He spent 22 months in the Army, most of that time in the tense post-truce standoff in South Korea before he left the service in 1956. The Bellmore native came back to Long Island and cobbled together 50 years of odd jobs — factory worker, dishwasher, newspaper deliverer, taxi driver — before retiring and moving into the house in 2008.

He doesn’t have much. Abrahamsen says he lives on $1,076 per month, a combination of Social Security and veterans benefits.

“If I get put out tomorrow, I’ll be walking the streets,” Abrahamsen said.

Family and Children’s Association vice president Lisa Stern said the agency is working to find suitable housing for the four men and has no intention of evicting anyone. She said the nonprofit has repeatedly arranged contacts between the men and other housing providers, including United Veterans Beacon House, the Long Island Center for Independent Living and a group home supervised by the Nassau County Department of Social Services.

But, Stern said, the physical and psychological needs of the house’s aging residents — one man has fallen repeatedly because of a bad knee, and another who has severe diabetes recently moved into an assisted living facility — are beyond the agency’s expertise.

“As the men aged in the house, their needs changed,” Stern said. “And we don’t have the funding to meet those needs.”

Jeffrey Reynolds, the nonprofit’s CEO, said the organization has not decided the future of the house, only that it is unsuited for its current use.

Despite the assurances, several of the men said they have been homeless before and are concerned that their lives may descend again into that chaos.

Veterans are almost twice as likely to be homeless as the nonveteran population, according to data provided by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder, related substance abuse, and sometimes a lack of family and social support networks after years in the military often make it harder for veterans to put down roots.

Some veterans have difficulty living with nonveterans they say lack values stressed in the military, such as honor and self-reliance. And veterans often have difficulty finding good-paying jobs because skills they learned in the military are not always transferable to the civilian workforce.

“Veterans, more than the general population, may be dealing with issues such as PTSD, TBI [traumatic brain injury], and maybe self-medication to compensate for nightmares or flashbacks. They are trying to cope with society and either trying to deal with it or not trying to deal with it,” said Beth Gabellini, who directs veterans support for Services for the UnderServed, a nonprofit that combats veteran homelessness.

Abrahamsen acknowledged that his past has included difficulty living with nonveterans, and that he is sometimes so depressed he contemplates suicide.

But he and others insist they are better off staying together than trying to make it on their own.

The man with the bad knee, Kevin Brooks, 64, served in Danang in 1972, where U.S. forces had a major air base during the Vietnam War. He said he hurt his knee jumping from a truck while unloading artillery shells and for a while fell into alcoholism after leaving the Marines as a sergeant in 1982.

He said before moving into the house 15 years ago, he had lived in a series of homeless shelters but found them to be forbidding.

“Whatever you had was getting stolen,” said Brooks, who uses a cane on good days and crutches when his knee is particularly sore. “You had to lock your shoes up and everything.”

He says it is particularly important to share a place with other veterans.

“It’s a whole lot different than living with civilians, because we’ve been through the same thing,” said Brooks, as Abrahamsen breakfasted nearby on cold corned beef hash spooned directly from a can. “It’s like being on a team. We treat each other like brothers.”

The two Brooks are not related.

Lyle Davidon, 51, reluctantly moved from the house in June after renting a room in a nearby home. Still, he drops by to socialize for a few hours almost every day.

“It was a family, a community,” he said during a visit, as he packed up a few remaining items destined for a rented storage space. “Everyone has been there for everyone else.”

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