'Operation Safe Haven' pushing ahead with South Jersey housing project for homeless vets

While work is continuing to transform a former Gloucester County campground into a housing complex for homeless veterans, Amazing Grace Ministries is stepping out on faith Saturday with a grand opening celebration.

Project organizers want the public to see the progress that has been made since they launched an ambitious plan last year to turn the site in Franklinville into a retreat for combat veterans. The event was planned to coincide with the Memorial Day weekend, to honor those who lost their lives serving their country.

“We are celebrating how far we have come,” said Tammy Koller, the worship pastor at Amazing Grace.

Visitors will be able to canoe on the 65-acre man-made lake on the property, hike along trails, and take a hayride tour. A free lunch will be provided for veterans and Gold Star parents, whose children were killed while serving in the military. The event will be held at 1664 Delsea Dr. in Franklinville and run from noon to 4:30 p.m. Proceeds will benefit Operation Safe Haven.

Pastor Donnie Davis founded Operation Safe Haven last year and heads a nondenominational church on the property. The complex will put up as many as 60 homeless veterans in “micro-housing” – tiny houses – where they can stay free for as long as two years. The veterans will have access to mental-health services, peer counseling, and job-search assistance.

A band of volunteers has been helping to spruce up the once-abandoned 277-acre Village Dock campground, cleaning up debris and drilling a well. The sprawling waterfront property has several buildings, including a cabin that was refurbished for the first veteran.

Pastor Donnie Davis, 42, founder of Amazing Grace Ministries, stands on the grounds of a former campground in Franklinville, N.J., where he plans to build homes for homeless veterans. Davis, a former police officer and Air Force veteran, hopes to eventually build at least 60 units on the 277-acre site. Davis purchased the property in June and has recruited volunteers to help clean up the campgrounds, which had been vacant for 10 years. MELANIE BURNEY / STAFF

The first occupant, selected by the church and the Department of Veterans Affairs, was expected to arrive several months ago. But the move-in has been delayed pending approval by the township. A move-in date has not been announced.

“These veterans are in a predicament.  We want to help them get into the  next place,” Koller said.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 40,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. That’s down 50 percent since 2009.

“Any number of veterans without a safe place to call home is unacceptable, and programs like Operation Safe Haven are vital to continue efforts in communities across the country to end veteran homelessness,” Randy Brown, a spokesman for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, said Friday.  “This project is yet another great example of the creativity and passion of people around the country who want to give veterans a hand up out of homelessness.”

The modest micro-houses, measuring about 300 square feet each, will feature a kitchen, living space, bedroom, and bath. Several have already been paid for in full. A local union has donated its services to put the finishing touches on the houses.

Pastor Donnie Davis stands inside a cabin being renovated for the vets project in Franklinville. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Davis, a former police officer and Air Force veteran, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, like many of the veterans he wants to help. He purchased the property last June for $1.5 million. Because there is so much work to do, the project will be completed in phases.

Operation Safe Haven also calls for a community center that will be used for the church’s worship services, and for training and classes for the veterans. There are also tennis courts, a baseball field, and several other buildings on the property that need repair.

For more information, contact Amazing Grace Ministries at 325 Pennsylvania Ave., Franklinville, N.J. 08232, visit www.agccnj.com, or call 856-513-6114.