Class of 2013 Difference Makers

John Downing

President of Soldier On

John Dowling

John Dowling
Photo by Denise Smith Photography

John Downing has file folders full of statistics at his disposal as he talks about the many programs being carried out by Soldier On and the philosophy that powers the organization — from the percentage of veterans it serves who have mental-health issues (78%) to the average hourly wage being earned by the many formerly homeless veterans now working for the agency ($10.89).

But perhaps the most powerful — and poignant — numbers are these:

There are more than 265 ‘residents’ of the homeless veterans shelter and transitional facility in Leeds, where the organization is based, and only about 25 of them went ‘home’ — whatever and wherever that is — for the holidays last December.

“The rest of them were already home,” said Downing, the long-time president of the organization, founded in 1994, who understands fully what those numbers mean and what they tell him his responsibility, and that of his staff, must be to those the agency serves. Basically, to redefine ‘home.’

“These people have lost everything, and so they identify now with the community they’re growing and serving in,” said Downing, who told BusinessWest that, when he took over at the struggling organization, housed at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Leeds, in 2001 at the behest of its board, he did so with the single goal of creating the “Holiday Inn of shelters.”

He did that in what seemed like a few months — although it actually took the better part of a year to complete a full turnaround, thanks to some dramatic changes in the basic approach taken. And looking back over what’s happened since, success with that goal might be considered perhaps his most modest accomplishment.

Indeed, Downing has been able to blueprint and implement a number of innovative programs and services, all designed with the Soldier On slogan — ‘changing the end of the story’ — firmly in mind.

The most intriguing, and celebrated, of these to date is an initiative that provides veterans with the opportunity to transition from homelessness to home ownership through a unique program that enables them to purchase an equity stake in their homes. The Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield, where more than 40 veterans now own their own condos, has become a model being emulated around the country, and Soldier On is planning several similar projects in this area, in communities ranging from Northampton to Agawam.

But there is much more to the Soldier On story, including a unique and comprehensive veterans-outreach program that includes case-management and referral services and temporary financial assistance involving everything from daily living activities to transportation to child care.

There’s also a full roster of employment services — a key component in any individual’s struggle for financial independence — that include interview skills, money management, résumé building, training and education, and transportation. And there’s also something called the Veterans Justice Partnership, created with the purpose of developing service and treatment options and, where appropriate, alternatives to incarceration.

Meanwhile, Soldier On recently received a $100,000 grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation to develop a wellness center to support its growing women’s program, said Downing, adding that the money will be used to help fund a multi-faceted treatment plan aimed at “getting them back in the center of their lives.”

And while compassion is the primary driver of these programs, there is a practical side as well: some of those aforementioned statistics show that, while the VA is projected to spend $400,000 to $500,000 on a 54-year-old veteran over the rest of his or her life, in the Soldier On model, that cost drops to $150,000.

Overall, it’s not just what Solider On does that’s so impressive and makes this organization and its leader a Difference Maker, but also how. Its model is founded on the quality of social interaction amongst veterans, and it brings services to them instead of the other way around, while giving them the means to succeed rather than criticizing them when they don’t.

“Our job is to serve veterans where they are, and our job is to take responsibility for their failure,” Downing explained. “You don’t serve people by blaming them, shaming them, and making them afraid.”

For this special section profiling our Difference Makers, we talked at length with Downing about how this approach came about and why it has become so successful in positively impacting quality of life for veterans.

Vetting Process

During the course of his lengthy interview with BusinessWest for this story, Downing interrupted the proceedings on several occasions to bring various members of his staff into the discussion.

There was Maggie Porter, director of Communications; Michael Hagmaier, senior vice president; Dominick Sondrini, director of Outreach and Employment Training and coordinator of the Veterans Justice Partnership; John Crane, director of Case Management; and Katie Doherty, Women’s Partnership consultant, among others.

He wanted to introduce them and have them explain what they do and how, but he also wanted to display the great deal of pride he has in the team he’s assembled, the work it’s doing, and the intriguing approach it’s taking, which he explained in direct, colorful language.

“Everyone who comes to us is broken,” he explained. “And because of their brokenness, we all get to make a wonderful living serving them and figuring out strategies to bring their lives back to meaningful ways for them — not defining what we think is meaningful, but letting them define it for themselves.”

And as he elaborated, he ventured back to the weeks and months after he came to the then-7-year-old Soldier On, the latest in a series of assignments within the broad realm of social service and, especially, reintegration and after-care services.

He found an organization, started by some homeless veterans and employees of the VA hospital, that was functioning at about 40% capacity, had been poorly managed, and was essentially ready to be shut down by the VA.

His work to create that Holiday Inn he spoke of started with cleaning the buildings, replacing dilapidated furniture, and making sure the residents had decent meals and clothing.

And then, the real work started. By that, he meant changing and improving the way veterans were administered services and altering the basic approach taken by the staff. It was no small change.

“Most of us, as Communist-trained social workers, spend most of our adult lives learning how to tell people what to do,” he noted. “We tell people how to get into recovery, what steps they have to take, and what kind of financial planning they need to do. And we know how to tell them how to change their decision making.

“And I just thought that was a very offensive process to me as an adult,” he continued. “If you want to see my oppositional behavior rise up, just tell me what to do — and I’ll show you just what I’m not going to do. And I realized we spent a lot of time doing things that way, so I tried to figure out how to bring about change, because everyone in the recovery business, everyone working with homeless people, have all these rules and regulations that they like to enforce.

“So I decided to run the place with no rules — if you drank, you could stay, and if you missed your appointments, you could stay here, and that was quite different from what everyone else does in this world,” he went on, adding that another radical idea came to him — having the staff essentially take responsibility for the failures of those they’re serving.

This approach essentially changed the conversation, he said, from asking why they did certain things to asking what the staff could do to help them make better choices. That’s a fundamental change in philosophy that has had tremendous results.

“What we saw when we did that was that our number of intakes went from 1,025 for the 265 beds down to to 401,” he noted, adding that another major change was to either bring services to where those needing them lived — or bring them to the services.

Downing said that there are some things that he and his staff have come to understand over the years, and these have become the cornerstones to their model for delivering services:

• Veterans who have been homeless succeed in overcoming addiction, as well as physical and psychological challenges, when they are part of a community of veterans who serve and support each other;

• They typically fare better when they live in a community in which they are surrounded by the various services they need; and

• They require not only counseling and treatment, but education, employment training, and individual case-management services, all on an ongoing basis.

And when an agency can succeed in doing all that, many things are possible in that broad realm of helping veterans define — and achieve — things that are meaningful to them.

Room for Improvement

Nowhere is this more evident than with the program to transition homeless veterans into what amounts to home ownership.

And for the inspiration to take Solider On into this realm — what certainly amounted to uncharted territory and a tangled web of bureaucracy and funding programs — he returned to 2005 and a speech delivered by Army Maj. Ed Kennedy from the Joints Chiefs staff as the project in Pittsfield was being announced.

“As Kennedy finished his talk, he looked out on everyone and said, ‘I’m Major Ed Kennedy, I’m 31 years old, I’m in the Army, and I’m a dad to two children,’” Downing recalled. “And then he said to everyone, ‘I’m going back to Iraq, and I will die for you.’

“When he said that, in my head I was thinking, ‘every veteran in my care said, ‘I will die for you,’ and all 25 million Americans who were veterans said, ‘I will die for you,’ and I never heard it. And I thought to myself, ‘the people who said they would die for me … it’s OK for them to live in transitional housing with used clothing, be treated like second-class citizens, and be grateful for this, because I’ve never been grateful for their commitment.’

“And in that moment,” he went on, “I said, ‘the game is over for building shelters; I’m going to build beautiful housing for these people to own.’ That became the mission.”

The rest, as they might say, is history in the making.

And it’s been an intriguing, often difficult ride — Downing knew next to nothing about housing at that time, and had to endure a challenging learning curve involving something called limited-equity co-op apartments.

He saw a few models, mostly faith-based, in Minnesota and New York City, and took these concepts to a property he acquired in Pittsfield. The working model calls for individuals to buy an equity share in a complex (there are 39 units in Pittsfield, and thus 39 shares), and that share entitles the individual to rent an apartment. Soldier On provides Internet, cable, and 20 meals a month in a dining facility on the campus to help enable veterans to live in the complex on their limited incomes.

“It’s a model that really works — it ends homelessness for veterans, and it ends long-term care for veterans in the Veterans Administration system,” he said, adding that the win-win-win nature of the concept (there are also real-estate taxes to be gained by the community in question) is generating considerable interest in new projects.

There are 44 units planned for the VA complex in Leeds ($6.2 million has been secured from the VA to build it), another project is planned for the former police-training facility in Agawam, and more plans are coming to the drawing board across the country.

And while housing is certainly a huge part of the equation, there are many other ways in which Soldier On is helping to change the end of the story.

Another is through direct employment — there are now just over 100 people on the Soldier On payroll, and 74 of them are formerly homeless veterans — and helping enable clients to enter and succeed in the job market. Through the Homeless Veterans Reintegration (HVRP) program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the agency provides veterans with the tools and support necessary for employment, said Downing, adding that this includes maintaining relationships between veterans and area employers.

There is also a greater emphasis on outreach, he continued, as well as on the recently instituted Veterans Justice Partnership, an alternative-sentencing program, involving the four western counties, for veterans who wind up in the court system.

In a nutshell, the program was created to provide veterans with access to information, resources, and programs to help them make positive transitions and lead productive lives.

“We’re in all four western-county jails every week with our staff, meeting with the veterans in jail, running groups, and helping them do their exit planning,” said Downing. “It’s another example of how go where the veterans are, we serve them, and, in this case, we try to prevent them from winding up there.

“The earlier you can intervene, the more effective you can be, and the costs go down,” he continued, adding that this sentiment applies not only to the justice partnership, but also to every Soldier On endeavor, and it goes a long way toward explaining the organization’s track record for success.

Fighting the Good Fight

When it was explained to those veterans who would soon be living in the Gordon H. Mansfield Community in Pittsfield that they would become taxpayers, Downing recalled, some responded with tears.

“They would say to me, ‘Jack, I never thought I could do this again — and I’m so grateful that I can do it,’” he told BusinessWest.

For making it possible for such individuals to give back to the community in such a different and rewarding way, and for truly changing the end of the story in so many positive ways, Downing and the entire staff at Solider On are more than worthy of the title Difference Maker.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]