Rockland Homes For Heroes

Gov. Kathy Hochul Attends Ribbon Cutting Ceremony To Mark Completion of 14-Unit Rockland Homes for Heroes

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Affordable Housing Site Sits On Former Camp Shanks Location; $6 Million Project Spearheaded By Veteran & Former County Legislator John Murphy

By Tina Traster

In June 1968, on his 18th birthday, John L. Ruggiero left the abusive New Jersey home he grew up in and joined the U.S. Navy. An airman on aircraft carriers, the veteran said he was a skinny 127-pound teen tasked with one of the most dangerous jobs on the flight deck: a hold back man. In 1971, an aircraft blew up steps away from where he was working, turning into a fiery ball which catapulted Ruggiero into the air and landed him on his head.

“I was never the same; I have not been right since,” he recalled, adding he finished his tour over the next few months but returned home with loss of hearing, trouble with memory, and PTSD that wasn’t diagnosed for decades.

“This is a living tribute to 1.3 million, mostly young men, who came here to risk their lives, to fight the Nazis,” said Murphy.

Ruggiero, 74, built a life with a wife and children and took “any job available” to make a living in Orange County. But his world collapsed over a decade ago when his wife, a nurse, died. The once-stable man lost his house, lived temporarily in a hoarder’s house covered in mold, and ultimately became transient. He suffered a stroke shortly after his wife died, and subsequently two more. He was officially diagnosed with PTSD earlier this year. Ruggiero was unmoored and metaphorically at sea.

All that changed last April when he caught a lucky break. A friend was living at Rockland Homes for Heroes, a 14-unit affordable housing complex that sits on seven acres once occupied by Camp Shanks. On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul joined with the nonprofit and a roster of dignitaries at a press conference for a ribbon-cutting on a sweltering July day to mark the completion of the units.

“This is one of the best parts of my job – when I leave the Capitol – and go to places where people are changing people’s lives,” said Hochul, who spoke about her family’s war veterans and the sacrifices they’ve made to keep America safe.

Governor Hochul – July 10, 2024

“At minimum, we owe thanks to those who are willing to shed blood,” she said, adding they deserve “the dignity of a home. Not under a bridge, a street corner. Fourteen individuals now have a home for life.”

Rockland Homes for Heroes (RH4H) is a $6 million project, spearheaded by the now 89-year old John Murphy, who founded the nonprofit with the objective to eliminate veteran homelessness in the Mid-Hudson Counties of Rockland, Orange, Sullivan, Dutchess, Putnam and Westchester.

“Homelessness is life without a future. It breeds loneliness, despair, hopelessness, depression, addiction and – too often – suicide,” said Murphy, on the nonprofit’s website. “We’re fighting to give our veterans a chance to create a meaningful life for themselves outside of uniform.”

Of the 20 million military veterans living in the United States, over 37,000 of them will be homeless this very night, including 22,740 in sheltered settings and 14,345 in places not meant for human habitation, the site says.

In November of 2013, RH4H opened eight housing units at 335 Western Highway in the hamlet of Tappan. Wednesday’s ribbon cutting marked the completion of Phase II, bringing the total to 14 apartments.

The 14-acre former Camp Shanks site was the largest World War II port of embarkation for GIs on their way to fight in Europe.

“This is a living tribute to 1.3 million, mostly young men, who came here to risk their lives, to fight the Nazis,” said Murphy. “This is a tribute to the USA military, to men in uniforms. I did that 70 years ago when I joined.”

Murphy, who served in the Rockland County Legislature for 44 years, stepped up when the U.S. Military offered the former Camp Shanks site to any nonprofit that would build housing for the homeless. Murphy, who had been involved with Loeb House, which had been building treatment and supportive residential units since 1982, found a new mission.

Seven acres, or half the property, has been donated to the town of Orangetown, which has built a path around a wetland pond named “Homes for Heroes Green Project Walking Trail.”

The 842-square-foot, one-bedroom, handicapped-accessible apartments, designed by architect Toni Kowidge, from the Ives Architecture Studio of Fair Lawn, are spare and modern on the outside and roomy on the inside with high ceilings, open-floor plan and washer/dryers.

“This is what really sold me,” quipped Ruggiero, who gave this reporter a tour of his unit. With a glint in his eye, he opened a set of double doors to display a washer and driver and a row of detergents. “I’m a neat freak,” he said. “I’m the luckiest man.”

Ruggiero said the only downside was having to give up his puppy because the housing complex does not allow pets. Ruggiero pays $646 a month in rent.

The RH4H website calls the project long-term community-based housing that is linked to a range of targeted support services (including counselling, education/skills development, addiction treatment and job-readiness training).

After years of serving their country, many veterans return home to face a new struggle: with depression, addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many also cope with life-changing injuries, including amputations and traumatic brain injury.

Hochul said the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance contributed $4 million to the project, while Rockland County gave $800,000. Private and corporate donors, including Rand Commercial and Veolia, added to the $6 million project.

“Why are we here?” asked Hochul. “This was a place that saw many fight the villainy of Nazism half a world away. The governor said four of her uncles fought in wars.

“I remember watching Walter Cronkite and praying I would never see one of our uncles. That’s what I come from. Love of country.” She added a project like this “works to repay the debt.”

RH4H continues to raise funds for financial and material resources needed for veterans.

According to its website, any “Honorably Discharged veterans from any Branch of our National Military who meets the Federal Government criteria of homeless,” is eligible.

Referrals can originate in the six Mid-Hudson Valley Counties: Rockland, Westchester, Orange, Putnam, Sullivan, Ulster, Dutchess through the Veterans Administration Heath Care System serving these Counties to the Rockland County Social Services Department.