Photo by Richard Lovrich
By September of last year, spurred by a White House-backed challenge, Troy housed all 33 of its homeless veterans. Joseph’s House and Shelter and about a dozen other organizations partnered with Troy’s Housing and Community Development department to identify and place veterans in temporary or transitional housing. From there, 27 found permanent housing. Not two months after this operation ended, Troy landlord Michael Cioffi hosted a ribbon cutting at 171 Hill Street—Rensselaer County Executive Kathleen Jimino performed the honors—in front of a newly renovated, 17-bed veterans housing facility.
It’d be indelicate to call this bad luck for Cioffi, 55, who says he spent over a half-million dollars converting the former mortuary to its current purpose, since the threat to his business model, in this instance, is the abatement of a national disgrace. The current numbers of unsheltered veterans in the United States (13,067) and New York (92) both represent decreases of about a quarter since last year, according to federal statistics. Still, with an estimated 1,156 veterans living in emergency or temporary shelters in New York, one could presume, as Cioffi does, that many would welcome a venue change.
For now, the Sgt. Dominick Pitaniello Veteran/Community Housing facility, named for Cioffi’s great-uncle who was killed in World War II, sits almost completely empty. When The Alt visited the dorm-style, one-story building in late October, it had just five tenants, two of whom were not veterans. “I’m gonna be honest with you, the numbers are not there right now,” Cioffi said, standing in the facility’s shared kitchen. “I’m losing a lot of money. We’re trying to get more vets interested in coming, but there’s not the demand in Rensselaer County.” A unit’s monthly rental cost seems a contributing factor: $700 per month, including utilities. Individual apartments can be found for that price in the region.
Dressed in a blazer with a polka-dotted pocket square over a salmon-colored sweater, Cioffi spoke of the facility’s perks with a real-estate dealer’s panache. “This is quartz, this ain’t even granite,” he said of the kitchen countertop, before pulling out a drawer that had a built-in cutting board. In the middle of the tour, a Veterans Affairs caseworker called with a new potential tenant. Cioffi deployed his pitch: “Would you like to come over and have a visit?” he asked the veteran.
“Sure, I mean, right now I’m homeless,” a tired voice replied. “I’m living in a hotel room, and I’m paid up ‘till tomorrow, and I don’t know where I’m gonna go.”
Cioffi advised the man to contact Soldier On, a non-profit organization that, he said, might pay the man’s security deposit and first month’s rent. “We’ve got a lot of open beds,” he stressed. “They’re brand new beds—brand new box springs, brand new mattresses. I supply you a brand new pillow, pillow cases—everything! You don’t need nothing here.” He added: “When you see the facility, you’re gonna love it, because it’s absolutely beautiful.”
In the end, as Cioffi told The Alt a few weeks later over the phone, the deal fell through. Others have, too—over matters of cost, location, and communal living. Cioffi pines for a closer CDTA bus stop. The nearest one is three blocks away, which deters prospective handicapped tenants, according to Cioffi, who is adamant that there used to be a bus stop across the street. Reached by phone, CDTA director of marketing Jonathan Scherzer told The Alt that handicapped tenants would likely be eligible for paratransit services, and that the agency had no record of a bus stop “being there at some point in the last two decades.” Scherzer expressed willingness to have a dialogue with Cioffi, though both sides mentioned difficulties contacting one another.
The Sgt. Dominick Pitaniello Veteran/Community Housing facility will soon have just one veteran tenant, Cioffi told The Alt this month. He recently kicked out another for flouting the center’s no-drugs-or-alcohol policy. The facility is a business, not a charity, and despite his earnest desire to house a vulnerable population, Cioffi cannot operate at a loss for much longer. “I’m gonna give it another month, two months, and see what we can do,” he said.
It is hard to square the facility’s imminent failure with the present need for housing in the Capital District. Joseph’s House, a nonprofit that runs emergency shelters for homeless individuals and families in Troy, announced in a recent email that this past September, because it was at full occupancy, it had to turn away 140 “unduplicated” individuals.
A few years ago, incidentally, Joseph’s House nearly purchased 171 Hill Street. It sought to convert the building to a 16-unit “wet” shelter—supportive, subsidized housing where tenants could drink alcohol. There was significant neighborhood resistance to the proposal, though the nonprofit maintained, with empirical support, that such housing is “not only a humane and cost-effective response to an apparently intransigent social problem [but also] promotes significant change.” It’s difficult to kick an addiction when you’re living on the street. Homeless alcoholics, it seems, are the only alcoholics unworthy of a bed.
In the end, Joseph’s House scrapped the proposal after missing out on a state grant. There is currently no year-round wet shelter in the Capital District, according to Liz Hitt, executive director of the Homeless and Travelers Aid Society in Albany. It’s “a huge gap” in the region’s social safety net, she told The Alt.
Whatever the fate of Cioffi’s facility, the moral imperative to assist American veterans in need will endure—as, apparently, will veteran homelessness. According to the Capital Region Coalition to End Homelessness, one night this past January, there were 113 homeless veterans.
“It would be great if we actually wiped it right out, but that’s really never going to happen,” said Melody Burns, director of operations at the Veterans Miracle Center, an Albany-based nonprofit that has referred clients to Cioffi’s facility. “There’s always going to be the transitional veteran,” she added, referring to someone who moves to the region in search of opportunity but finds, upon arrival, “they have absolutely nothing and they know no one.” Cities across America laudably met the White House’s challenge to end veteran homelessness—but these victories were fragile, dependent upon the dogged and perpetual efforts of social service providers, housing advocates, public servants, and volunteers. Press conferences and ribbon cuttings raise awareness and give credit where it’s due. Then the politicos leave and the work resumes, same as it ever was.