WESTFIELD — On Tuesday, dozens of residents, veterans and town officials gathered at Martin Wallberg American Legion Post 3 in Westfield to discuss an innovative project that would see the North Avenue facility converted into a multi-purpose, modern venue that could help local vets find the safety, comfort and security of home.
If approved, the final project could consist of 22 housing units for at-risk veterans, a 3,000-square-foot banquet hall, a new community kitchen and several other amenities, all designed with accessibility in mind.
“Everything would be brought completely up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),” said project organizer and Westfield resident Joe Mindak. “We want to make sure that this is a welcoming and inviting space to everyone who wants to use it, so all of those factors will be taken into serious consideration.”
The Westfield project would be the third of its kind, said Mr. Mindak, who recently founded a non-profit organization called the Foundation for Sustainable Veteran Housing to take his passion to the next level.
The goal, Mr. Mindak said, is to help veterans’ facilities across the state repurpose their old buildings into modern, multi-purpose spaces.
“As of right now, there are 422 homeless veterans in New Jersey alone,” Mr. Mindak said Tuesday. “We have three other projects in the works — one in South Amboy, one in Montclair and one in Hoboken. If we can get every county in New Jersey to let us add about 20 residential units, we would be able to provide enough housing to get almost all of those individuals off the streets.”
The first phase of the Hoboken project, located on Second Street, was completed in 2019 after Mr. Mindak and other community supporters came together to help the hall get back on its feet after Hurricane Sandy.
“They were hit really hard,” Mr. Mindak said. “I got to know the commander over there, and after we talked for a while, we realized that since we really had to gut the building anyway, we might as well make some changes.”
Back in 2015, the post, assisted by Monarch Housing, received six housing-assistance vouchers for homeless veterans from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA). As a result, the Hoboken legion was able to construct six fully-furnished units, all of which have been continuously occupied ever since.
“It has been a real godsend,” said Hoboken Post Commander John Carey. “Joe was instrumental in making this happen for us. He helped us get the funding situated, he helped us make the connections that we needed, and he’s still helping us as we look to move forward with the next phase of construction.”
Ultimately, Mr. Carey said, the Hoboken post plans to add another 18 residential units to its facility.
“I had the privilege of seeing the work that they have done in Hoboken, and I was very impressed,” Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle said Tuesday. “It’s a gorgeous facility, and it’s a very proper tribute to the men and women who have served our country.”
The Westfield project, meanwhile, has already garnered some strong local support.
“This would address a real area of need for us,” said Westfield Post Project Manager Allan Bettua. “I’m going to be the go-to person within the Legion, so if there are any questions, people can always come to me. One of the main reasons that the American Legion even exists is because we want to help all of our veterans. They put their lives on the line, they went out there, they did everything for every one of us. On Veterans Day, on Memorial Day, you hear ‘thank a vet.’ Well, this is what it looks like.”
In addition to providing a necessary service to the community, the project’s proposed 22 residential units would help the town to meet its affordable-housing obligation.
“I hate to use this term, but it’s kind of a win-win,” Mr. Mindak said. “We can check a lot of boxes here.”
If completed, the new facility would be staffed by a representative from Veterans Affairs who would be able to help local veterans access vocational training, counseling services and other essential resources without having to travel outside of the community.
Thus far, Mr. Mindak said, the projects have been funded through a variety of sources, including state, county and local aid, grant subsidies and donations.
“I decided to start the foundation to spread awareness and make it easier for us to raise the funds we need to support these projects,” he said. “If we can start to attract larger donors, that will make it easier for us to build the projects that we want to complete both in New Jersey and, hopefully, beyond it.”
The Westfield project will have to go through the same approval process as any other local development, Mr. Mindak said Monday, adding that he plans to host an introductory kick-off event at some point in the coming months to bring the public more directly into the conversation.
Though nothing is set in stone as of yet, Mayor Brindle said she thinks the concept, at least, is a good one.
“I have been impressed with this idea since day one,” she said. “Homelessness is a national problem, but I think this is a very creative approach to trying to address it at the local level.”