Delay on Salem veterans complex can’t put damper on grand opening

About 500 people gathered Thursday morning to celebrate the grand opening of a new veterans housing complex across the street from the YMCA in downtown Salem.

The $10 million dollar project is affiliated with the Family YMCA of Marion and Polk Counties and named in honor of Peter Courtney, the former Oregon Senate president who secured the bulk of the funding.

Courtney and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden were among the speakers at the event, which took place despite the actual opening of the 34 units being on hold for at least five months.

Veterans won’t get to move into Courtney Place, on the corner of Cottage and Court streets NE, until January because of supply chain issues related to electrical boxes for each unit.

“My wife said, ‘You should start by saying you’re not a veteran, Peter, but you had to, with others, go to war to bring about this building,’ ” Courtney told the crowd. “And in some ways, that’s exactly true.”

How was it funded?

The project was five years in the making with funding challenges along the way, and several speakers cited Courtney’s tenacity as the difference-maker. He shifted the spotlight to say all members of the Oregon Legislature played a role.

Courtney helped lock down $7 million in Oregon Lottery funds from the Legislature, and Wyden and fellow U.S. Sen. Merkley worked to secure an additional $2 million in federal funds. Community donations from banks, foundations and individuals covered the other $1 million.

Who will the complex serve?

The four-story complex with 27 one-bedroom and seven two-bedroom apartments will serve male and female veterans and their families who need an affordable option for permanent housing. Eligible veterans must demonstrate an area median income of 60% or below the poverty line.

“These are homes. They’re not apartments,” Courtney said. “These will be homes to men and women who don’t have one, who don’t know what a mailbox is … who don’t even begin to comprehend a place that they can call safe.”

Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs Director Kelly Fitzpatrick, an Army veteran, called the project a pioneering effort among many community partners.

“Courtney Place is more than just a building,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s a testament to our shared commitment to addressing the crisis of veteran houselessness head-on.”

She said 10% of Oregonians experiencing homelessness are veterans and the most recent count estimated there are more than 1,400 houseless veterans across the state.

Who will oversee the complex?

The Y Veterans Housing organization, a nonprofit formed to operate the complex, has hired Andrew Holbert as its executive director. Holbert is a U.S. Marine veteran who served one tour in Iraq and has spent the past decade serving his veteran peers.

Two other staff positions have yet to be filled, one for social services and the other for events/activities.

“Securing housing is only just the beginning,” Holbert said. “This place will serve as a beacon of hope, as a hub for resources, as a place of peace, a place that will foster camaraderie and will forever be synonymous with veteran success.”

Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s ARCHES Project originally was lined up to provide staffing but will still be involved. It will direct placements for eight of the units through its Tanner Project, a local transitional shelter for veterans.

What services will the complex offer?

An additional $540,000 in lottery dollars was acquired during this past legislative session to fund on-site wrap-around services for the veteran residents, including social service resources, mental and behavioral health support, and financial literacy and life skills training.

AJ Klausen, a U.S. Marine veteran and president of the Y Veterans Housing board, said the wrap-around services will help veterans heal from traumas they have endured during military experience. He noted how more Marines in his unit that deployed 15 years ago to Afghanistan have died by suicide than were killed in action.

“Veterans, I’m here to tell you that you and your service has not been forgotten,” Klausen said. I’m here to tell you that we see you fighting and we are your reinforcements. We are your supply drop, your artillery and your close air support.”

Residents of Courtney Place also will have free access to programs and services at Withnell Family YMCA across Cottage Street. Also, the Oregon World War II Memorial is across Court Street, and the Oregon State Capitol is just up the road.

“The location is as great as any veterans place in the nation,” Courtney said.

Courtney Place is considered a housing model for other communities, and Wyden plans to shine a spotlight on it in Washington, D.C.

“I’m going to be talking this up when the Senate Finance Committee talks about various housing policies,” Wyden, chairman of that committee, said after the grand opening. “I’m going to say in Salem, Oregon, you can see the future.”