Veterans Day - Valor Pointe

Navy Vet Gary Canary talks to a reporter at Valor Pointe in Boise on Oct. 20, 2021.

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Two years, four months and three days.

Gary Canary’s eyes light up as bright as his smartphone’s blue screen, held proudly aloft with an outstretched hand. An app tracks his progress.

It’s how much time has passed since June 17, 2019. It’s how long Canary has been clean.

It wasn’t, isn’t, easy, he said.

Alcohol addiction and mental health problems have always been a part of Canary’s life, even when he was serving his country for more than 11 years in the U.S. Navy.

Veterans Day - Valor Pointe

Navy Vet Gary Canary shows an app on his phone that tracks how long he’s been sober, at Valor Pointe in Boise on Oct. 20, 2021.

As he traveled around the world by ship, those problems tended to travel with him like a cloud. When he got out of the service, they were there, waiting within him.

He fell in love; he fell out of love.

He held jobs; he lost jobs.

He battled depression; he didn’t win. Not for a long time, anyway. Like many veterans who are trained to get through damn near anything without flinching, he said, he thought he could stiffen up and handle it. He didn’t know how to ask for help. He felt like other veterans deserved that help more than he did. He ended up homeless and living in a van in an alleyway in Twin Falls, he said.

Then he walked into the Twin Falls VA Clinic. He knew he was entitled to medical benefits because he was a veteran, but he had no idea how to get started.

At first, he said, he was assigned a doctor, and she listened while he talked. She didn’t push, didn’t pry, didn’t demand.

“And then she left a lot of things alone. And I understand why she did what she did. Although, it threw me for a loop. She just left everything as it is, OK,” he said. “Then, I finally came into her office and looked at her and said, ‘I need help.’ And she goes, ‘I was waiting for that. Now let’s see what we can do.’”

Over time, that simple, three-word phrase — I need help — would change the trajectory of Canary’s life forever. It would eventually lead him to Boise’s Valor Pointe, the first-of-its-kind project in Idaho to provide permanent housing dedicated specifically to veterans.

It would lead him to support services, a social worker, a companion animal, strong friendships, a job.

But more than that, Valor Pointe has become an anchor for Canary, where he can live privately and independently in his own apartment, surrounded by servicemen and women who were brave enough to ask for help, just like him.

His own car and home and bank account, for the first time

Born in California, Canary said his life had never been one of ease as he grew up.

In 1982, at 18 years old, he joined the U.S. Navy, which took him all around the globe to places like Scotland, Greece, Germany and Italy. He found a job in the Navy that fit: what’s colloquially called a fresh air snipe, or, in other words, a diesel mechanic.

“Right after I joined the Navy, I was the most … the happiest person in the entire world,” Canary said. “I started doing things and going places and seeing places. That was just, oh my good Lord. Phenomenal.”

But in the end, he said, his demons outmaneuvered those good experiences.

“A lot of mental things were starting to happen,” he said. “I went through, unfortunately, drinking quite a bit to the point where it was just like, you know what, I just, I had enough. And I just walked away.”

It was easier to leave the military as a petty officer second class than address those problems head on, he said.

But since Valor Pointe opened in August 2020, filling its 27 one-bedroom apartments over a 60-day span in the fall of 2020, Canary said he’s worked for a real shot at a normal life with the help of people who believe in his abilities. He’s now a maintenance worker for two apartment complexes that Northwest Real Estate Capital Corp., the management company that oversees Valor Pointe, owns.

“I’ve never had a bank account that’s my own. I’ve never had my own house. I’ve never owned my own car,” Canary said. “And since I’ve been in this program, I have my own bank account, my own house and my own car. … They’re mine.”

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How is Valor Pointe different from other homeless shelters?

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Mandy Anderson, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing social worker who helps oversee Canary’s case, said his experience is one of many examples of how Valor Pointe is changing the lives of Idaho’s veterans and their spouses.

At the facility, veterans have their own private apartments, two of which are fully accessible to people with disabilities, while the others are adaptable to any other physical challenges the veterans may face. Each apartment comes with an electric stove, refrigerator, central heat and air conditioning, window coverings, laminate floors, wood trim, and large windows. Water, sewer and trash are included in the lease.

Valor Pointe also has common areas available to all residents, like a community room, gym, therapeutic garden, bike storage and laundry room. It’s close to the bus line, so veterans are able to access Boise’s services and amenities.

Anderson said the HUD VASH voucher program, which takes into account a veteran’s income and inability to pay for housing, is a critical component of how veterans come to stay at Valor Pointe.

“Through public housing authorities, HUD provides rental assistance vouchers for privately owned housing to veterans who are eligible for VA health care services and are experiencing homelessness,” the VA’s website explains. “VA case managers may connect these veterans with support services such as health care, mental health treatment and substance use counseling to help them in their recovery process and with their ability to maintain housing in the community.”

The Idaho Housing and Finance Association and the Boise VA are the agencies that help distribute housing tax credits and these vouchers in the Gem State.

“States are allocated low-income housing tax credits, a federal resource based on a per-capita formula,” said Cory Phelps, the Idaho Housing and Finance Association’s vice president of project finance. “We are the agency that is tasked with awarding and allocating those tax credits for projects. It has to be done on a competitive basis.”

Under the tax credits the Valor Pointe project received, the property must be used for affordable housing for at least 40 years, Phelps said.

The other critical component of Valor Pointe’s success is that it uses a housing-first model, Anderson said.

“There’s a lot of research supporting the housing-first model, and essentially it means you house people first and then work with them on whatever’s going on, versus asking them to change in order to be able to go into housing,” Anderson said. “We provide people with the support to be able to change or to make different decisions, or give them some time and space to be off the streets or out of a shelter to have some stability.”

Veterans Day - Valor Pointe

Mandy Anderson, HUD VASH social worker for the Boise VA, speaks in her office at Valor Pointe in Boise on Oct. 20, 2021.

That’s where social workers see the most growth and progress in the veterans, even though the model may seem counterintuitive to some, Anderson said.

It’s a model that Phelps said could be used to serve more Idaho veterans with the right developer and partnerships in place.

“All things remaining constant, and if it continues to show that it’s a model that works, it is certainly something that we can try to replicate in other areas around the state,” he said. “The real critical thing is making sure that you’ve got that voucher component to it.”

It’s important for Canary to make sure the partners and people who made Valor Pointe a reality hear one thing from him.

“The No. 1 thing that I would want to do is literally walk up to each and every single one of them, shake their hand, give them a hug, and tell them thank you,” he said. “Because contributing to this place, and getting this place built for us, has led to me knowing that in some of my mental struggles, I can walk through the front door of this building, close that front door and lock out all my demons, and then walk into my apartment, close my apartment door and say, ‘I’m home.’”

{span class=”print_trim”}Originally published Nov. 11 on IdahoCapitalSun.com.

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