Late U.S. Navy veteran John Arthur Johnson served on the board of Operation Stand Down (OSD) Rhode Island for 20 years, dedicating his life to supporting other soldiers. And though Johnson is gone, that mission will continue in his name.
OSD opened two new properties Monday that will provide housing and other supportive services to six Rhode Island veterans. The properties are named in honor of Johnson, as well as U.S. Air Force veteran Jean Louise Mayo, and Army SPC Ronald Blake, who was killed in action in the Vietnam War.
“These homes will be about the future; it will be about men and women rebuilding their lives,” said Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts. “Johnston will be a great home for people who really need a home.”
May Johnson, widow of the former board member, said her family is “greatly honored” by the recognition. She knows her husband would have been honored, too.
“I know he’s looking down, smiling from ear to ear,” she said. “Working with veterans was his life.”
Robert Blake, brother of the late Ronald Blake, shared how much his family misses Ronald. Days after a letter from Ronald confirmed that he would take on the responsibility of Godfather for Robert’s daughter, Debbie, the family received a telegram that Ronald was missing in action.
Speaking on behalf of former client Jean Louise Mayo, OSD Special Projects Manager Sherry Elderkin said Mayo had a simple way about her that could light up a room.
“We’re the luckiest people to have ever come cross Jean Louise Mayo,” she said.
The property is located on the 1010 Hartford Avenue campus of Operation Stand Down’s headquarters. Funding to rehabilitate the site came from a combination of state and federal dollars, and now that the $1.3 million project is complete, OSD has assumed control of all but one house atop the Johnston hill.
Since its inception 20 years ago under the direction of Board President Anthony DeQuattro, OSD has opened five other facilities with enough units for 43 veterans from West Warwick to Providence. Another property in Westerly is under construction and near completion.
DeQuattro and his fellow veterans on the board, past and present, continue to identify properties in order to eradicate homelessness among veterans. While homelessness in this population is decreasing nationally, Rhode Island – the state with the highest deployment figures in the country – continues to struggle.
“Veteran homelessness has gone up 20 percent in the last year alone in Rhode Island,” said Executive Director Erik Wallin, Esq.
Congressman Jim Langevin called those figures a “national disgrace” that must be changed.
Still, Operation Stand Down has accomplished a lot. Wallin notes that “20 years has changed things,” and the organization now has the backing of Rhode Islanders, who in November 2012 passed the $94 million affordable housing bond issue that will support veteran housing opportunities.
Cardi’s Furniture and Barbara Sokoloff Associates are among OSD’s biggest corporate partners.
“They’ve all come together to serve a population that desperately needs us,” said Governor Lincoln Chafee.
OSD also has solid support from local, state and federal officials. DeQuattro’s dealings with those officials was a point of humor throughout Monday’s event, with many elected officials admitting that they have been on the receiving end of one of the board president’s tirades.
“For more than 20 years, Tony DeQuattro has dedicated himself to making sure no one is left behind. This is an important milestone,” said Senator Jack Reed.
Governor Chafee applauded DeQuattro for his persistence, and said that his motives are well intentioned.
“Not enough was being done,” he said.
Chafee hopes that trend is being reversed, both by OSD and by the state, where nine bills supporting veterans are currently before the General Assembly. The state has established a website to connect veterans with resources as well (www.veterans.ri.gov).
DeQuattro was quick to shift the focus back to the veterans that OSD serves.
“This is truly God’s work and we try to do it the best we can,” he said.
In addition to transitional and permanent housing, Operation Stand Down provides social services, employment training and connects veterans with health care and other resources provided by agencies like the VA.
“It’s amazing all you’ve done,” said General Treasurer Gina Raimondo. “Because of what you’ve done, people have what they deserve – the wrap-around services that people need and deserve.”
Raimondo said she hoped to bring a message of gratitude both to the veterans and active duty service members and also to their families.
“Thank you for your bravery and for your courage and for your sacrifice and for all that you do to make this state and this country a more perfect and free place,” she said. “We do remember and we do appreciate and we do honor all that you’ve done.”
Barbara Fields, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said she too is “forever grateful” for the sacrifices of veterans. She is glad to be in a position to help soldiers, noting that American troops helped her father escape from the Holocaust.
“Housing for veterans and ending homelessness among veterans is a top priority,” she said.
DeQuattro concedes that much work remains ahead if homelessness is truly to be eradicated. Through housing, social services and the support of his board, staff and volunteers, he wants Rhode Island veterans to know that they are appreciated.
“This is my main mission in life,” he said. “Someone walks through that door, they’re taken care of.”