Doors open for homeless veterans

Former Albany convent now 12-unit residence named after Democratic icon Richard Conners

Section: Capital Region,  Page: B1

Date: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

ALBANY - It feels good for John Howard, a 51-year-old homeless Vietnam veteran, to have a place where his dog tags can hang next to those of his late father, who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Howard lives in a new 12-unit residence for homeless veterans in what used to be the nuns' convent next to Sacred Heart Church on Walter Street in North Albany. "It's great here, just like your own home," said Howard, who has his own bedroom. The residence has a kitchen he can use whenever he wants, another room to relax and watch television and a washer/dryer.

On Monday, the Albany Housing Coalition dedicated the two-story brick residence in honor of the late Richard Conners, a Democratic icon who was the first chairman of the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee.

Conners, who grew up on Walter Street in a house that once stood only a few feet from the new veterans home, died in 1995 at age 85 after a 51-year career in public office.

It is a turnaround for the not-for-profit coalition, which last summer closed a 60-unit veterans residence on Madison Avenue after falling into debt and becoming embroiled in a zoning dispute with the city.

In Arbor Hill, the coalition has a 28-bed residence for homeless veterans at 180 First St., as well as single apartments along Clinton Avenue.

Howard, who enlisted in the Marines as a 17-year-old when the war was winding down, worked for much of his life, with jobs including truck driver and freight shipper. But heart trouble left him disabled. He lived in Saratoga Springs on his $881-a-month disability pension until he could no longer afford it, and he moved to Albany two years ago.

And the opening of the new Conners Veterans Home continues a rebirth for the North Albany neighborhood, once the heart of the city's Irish-American community that Conners embodied. Up the hill, the rebuilt Corning Homes stand above the renovated North Albany Academy, known as School 20 until recently, which is connected to a new YMCA and library branch. Nearby, families occupy new homes built by Habitat for Humanity on Emmett Street.

Coalition Director Joseph Sluszka said the group spent about $400,000 to buy the prop erty from the church and renovate it. Work was paid for mainly through grants from the state Office of Temporary Disability Assistance, along with the state Division of Veterans Affairs, state Office of Children and Family Services, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, state Division of Housing and Community Renewal and city of Albany Community Development Agency.

Beginning in March, Howard was the first of five veterans to move into the Conners home, Sluszka said. The coalition is taking applications for the remaining seven rooms. Applicants must be disabled veterans who have been homeless. In Howard's case, he was living in one of the coalition's temporary apartments on Clinton Avenue after coming to Albany.

More homeless veterans like Howard are out there, but it's hard to gauge how many, Sluszka said. "We probably are contacted every few days by a veteran who needs someplace to say," he said.

He said Albany draws eligible veterans because of the good reputation of the Stratton VA Medical Center.

Homeless veterans totaled nearly 194,000 throughout the United States, according to a 2005 VA study provided by the National Coalition For Homeless Veterans. About 12,700 of those veterans were believed to be in New York, according to the report.

During the dedication, officials recalled the affection that Conners, who served in World War II, had for veterans. One of his most widely known efforts resulted in the state adopting protections for Vietnam-era vets exposed to Agent Orange, a toxic chemical defoliant.

"As a child, I can recall going, or being dragged to, you might say, a number of veterans events," said his daughter, Mary Alice Conners Morgan. "There wasn't a veterans monument in this area that Dad didn't know about. He could tell you stories about the people with each one."

Brian Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or by e-mail at