Sixty new, one- and two-bedroom apartments, sunny and comfortably furnished, open onto a grassy North Amityville square where flags of the five United States uniformed service branches fly.
This is Liberty Village, a housing project for homeless military veterans and their families that celebrated its grand opening last week with more than 100 visitors, including Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), and officials from Suffolk County and Babylon town as well as residents of the complex.
The $21 million project was built at a disused 15-acre Army Reserve base at 600 Albany Ave. A squat brick building there once used by the military has been repurposed as office space for a host of agencies, including Concern for Independent Living, the nonprofit agency behind the Liberty Village development, that will provide housing, employment and other services. One-bedroom apartments rent for about $575 monthly; two bedrooms go for about $710.
"This is the Taj Mahal," said Nicole Farley, 61, who served in the Navy from 1973 to 1977. She said until the project opened last month she was living in a garage apartment in Selden. "I keep on expecting someone to knock on the door and say, 'Oh, we made a mistake here.' "
Farley's collection of unicorn figurines dotted her living room; it was the first time in years, she said, that she'd had a place to display them.
"The goal is to eliminate veteran homelessness by 2015," said Ralph Fasano, executive director of Concern for Independent Living. The $21 million came from a combination of state, county and private sources. "We're making a dent."
Estimates of the number of homeless veterans on Long Island range from several hundred to 1,000. Causes vary, Fasano said, but the region's high cost of living is often a factor, as is the trauma that military life can bring.
"Veterans who have repeatedly done tours of duty and repeatedly have to adjust to being here and then going back to battle -- it's pretty well researched that that leads to post-traumatic stress disorder and difficulty in adjusting," Fasano said. "Just having to go away means you may not have job stability or housing stability."
More help could be on the way if the Suffolk County Legislature moves ahead with several bills that would transfer surplus property to nonprofits to create housing for homeless veterans. A public hearing for the measures is scheduled for Tuesday in Riverhead.
Living in a community of veterans is a rare pleasure, several residents said. "We all have so many things in common: lifestyle, moral character," said Michele Brown, 51, who served in the Navy from 1980 to 1990.
For some, simply having a home was a chance to restart lives. Angel Romero, 41, who served with the Army in Iraq in 2008, said his PTSD led to a split from his wife and homelessness in upstate Ellenville. Since moving into Liberty Village, he's made plans to host his daughter for Christmas and to study psychology at Adelphi University.
"The day I walked into this apartment, I said, 'This is a new beginning,' " Romero said, standing in front of the shelves where he keeps his books and the mementos of a military life. "I took all the hassles, all the old stress, and I pushed it aside."
The $21 million Liberty Village offers 60 one- and two-bedroom apartments in two-story buildings, along with outreach, legal and vocational services. One-bedroom units rent for about $575 monthly and two-bedrooms are about $710.
The apartments and an office building for social service agencies are on nearly 16 acres at a former Army Reserve base.