A new three-story building designed by Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects and located on Penn Avenue in downtown Scranton addresses the needs of a grossly underserved population: veterans who have fallen on hard times. St. Francis Commons was commissioned by Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton and constructed on a site adjacent to the St. Francis Kitchen food pantry.

This new three-story transitional housing facility is utilized primarily by veterans discharged from the nearby VA hospital suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and in need of transitional housing.

“St. Francis Commons is a real gift to the community and in particular to homeless veterans,” says Monsignor Joseph Kelley, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services. “The veterans that we are serving are extremely happy with the program and able to get the services they need. We’ve been very successful in finding them part-time and full-time employment so they can move on to permanent housing.”

There are currently 28 residents at the facility. Kelley says that five of the residents who found a home at St. Francis Commons since they opened in July have already moved to permanent housing.

“They’re coming in as fast as they’re going out,” Kelley says.

Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects planned and designed the much-needed facility, a $6.4 million project. The design of the exterior is urban and visually very appealing, incorporating a variety of materials, colors, and textures - breaking the stereotype of single-room occupant housing. The upper two floors of The Commons includes affordable transitional housing for up to 30 veterans. Those referred by the Department of Veterans Affairs can rent the dorm-style units for up to two years, so that they may live in dignity and access supportive services to help them find employment, counseling, medical care, education, transportation, and whatever other services they may need to regain self-sufficiency. Residents can also gain job training and life skills through the opportunity to volunteer at the on-site food pantry and clothing store.

Eight of the 30 rental units are fully accessible, including one unit equipped for those with audio-visual impairments. Each floor has common areas with kitchen, dining, and lounge spaces. Murphy & Dittenhafer Interiors, led by Frank Dittenhafer II, FAIA, LEED, AP, and Debra Miller-Schober, CID-IIDA, ensured that the interior palette of materials, finishes, and colors provided an expression of warmth, dignity, and interest.

The new facility allows Catholic Social Services to better meet the needs of the veterans they serve. Monsignor Kelley says that they offered the same services before, but not in such an inviting environment. He says the building itself makes the residents feel much more independent. In place of the former shared rooms and communal baths, there are now private rooms with private baths to offer more privacy. And being co-located with St. Francis Kitchen, the free clothing store, and food pantry means they have access to those amenities and opportunities to volunteer - right there on-site. Monsignor Kelley says the volunteer opportunities are a critical piece of the puzzle.

“They benefit greatly by feeling valuable and needed,” he says. “We’re able to give them the opportunity to give.”

Having all these services in one place is unusual, and St. Francis Commons has immediately become a model for integrated residential services for homeless veterans. There are a number of residences for homeless veterans around the U.S., but nothing that’s so closely connected to these other opportunities. Monsignor Kelley says that programs in other parts of the country are making arrangements to visit and take a look at what’s happening in Scranton.

“Our office considered it a tremendous privilege to be selected for this commission and to be given the opportunity to enhance the lives of homeless veterans,” says Frank Dittenhafer, principal-in-charge for Murphy & Dittenhafer Architects. “We accepted the challenge that our architectural design for this new building would translate into a facility that not only serves a much-needed purpose, but would also inspire all who live, work, and volunteer at St. Francis Commons.

Construction on the 24,000-square foot building began in April 2013 and was completed in May 2014. Catholic Social Services hosted a dedication and blessing ceremony in July 2014.