“It takes a village…” says James Little, eyes bright, voice ringing. Beneath his joyful demeanor lies the wisdom that only struggle provides. After retiring from the Army at the rank of E6 (Staff Sergeant), in 1987, James Little still had a great many challenges to face. Now, Mr. Little is, quite proudly the first of the residents from The Whitehall Apartments, Mission First’s veterans supportive housing community, to purchase and move into his own home. He sat with our communications team remotely from his home in Bethlehem and talked at great length about those challenges and more importantly, what he’s gained as a result.
Permanent supportive housing (PSH) is an intervention designed to address the needs of some of the most vulnerable populations. Individuals who have experienced homelessness, deep poverty, substance abuse issues and in some cases mental health instability are all intended to benefit from the design considerations of PSH. Pairing affordable housing with case management and supportive services, PSH is intended to develop independent living and tenancy skills while connecting individuals to their communities and a variety of support services to ensure their successful participation in those communities. The Whitehall Apartments is a PSH community specifically designed for veterans and their families.
Born in Camden, NJ, Mr. Little moved back to his native North Carolina before returning and settling in Moorestown where he would later set records as a hurdler in high school. His track and field excellence led him to the University of Florida, where he found success as both student and athlete. After entering the U.S. Army “fresh out of college”, Mr. Little gained rank fairly quickly. Once his military service concluded, he continued serving others, working as a long-term substitute teacher for young people with special needs, making the most of his voice to support and advocate for his students. His own personal struggles began to mount, however, including illness and bouts of PTSD. Following an operation for kidney cancer in 2016, Mr. Little moved to Coatesville, PA. Not long after, he was referred by the VA to The Whitehall Apartments where, James enrolled in a Coatesville-based Upward Bound program, maintaining a positive outlook and reminding himself to always “keep his feet moving”.
James is an exemplar for those looking to make the most of what PSH has to offer. However, these programs may be ineffective without the right leadership in place. Kim Wilkinson is the Resident Services Coordinator for The Whitehall Apartments. “Kim isn’t a blessing, she is a gift!”, he says, noting “whoever hired Kim had great insight”. Shortly after Wilkinson’s installation at The Whitehall Apartments, computing and nutrition classes appeared, walking groups formed, trips were taken and a great deal of bingo was played. He notes Kim’s willingness to go above and beyond, insisting she became something of a parental figure, working hard to “spread her love amongst residents”, ensuring that community was built through cultivating love and respect.
Concrete action continued to nurture positive community life, as Wilkinson organized an onsite food pantry, supported by Chester County Food Bank, as well as substance abuse counseling and nurse visits.
In a suburban community, where many residents have little or no access to vehicles and public transit can be very sparse, these where acts of love. Little, one of the first residents to call the Whitehall home in 2017, is described as a goal-driven overachiever, who cites Wilkinson’s investment in him as crucial, providing the tools he needed to continue education and navigate disability benefits. Aside from purchasing a home, James has been recognized as a respected member of the Whitehall community whose ability to advocate for others has influenced his decision to become a peer support specialist.
Noting Wilkinson’s compassion and humility, he says that the intention of her actions will live on infinitely. He is living proof in fact, now “living life as opposed to just existing” and turning his attention to paying those intentions forward. “She didn’t give up on me…all you got to do is ask for help!”, citing Wilkinson’s agency-building and motivation as instrumental. “That was the key, you got to know where to go for research…Kim told me if you need to know something, ‘Google it!’”
Cheerful, humble and full of wisdom, the 65-year-old explained, now that his youngest daughter is away at college, his path also includes more learning and giving. For him, home is a place of happiness and safety, where he can relax and focus on keeping “his ‘spiritual step’ in check”. He most certainly is doing that, recently receiving certification from the state to work as a peer specialist. Once employed, he is looking to come full circle, bringing his services to The Whitehall Apartments to serve those whose struggles he is intimately acquainted with.
“We got to spread the love!” he muses. “They may think I don’t know,” speaking of the peers he plans to impact, “…or that I’ve never been there but I know exactly what they’re going through.”