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Air Force Veteran Finds Second Act and Safe Haven in Metro Denver

With support of Rocky Mountain Human Services, he was able to call Aurora’s Park 16 home.
  |  March 26, 2024

“I never let the grass grow under my feet — even in my homelessness, I never gave up.”

Though he has faced significant challenges throughout life, Dannell McNeil’s resilient spirit shines through. As a native Coloradan, McNeil’s life experiences have taken him from his childhood in Denver to service in the U.S. Air Force to touring California as a musical artist.

More recently, he has called Park 16 Apartments in Aurora his home. The 60-unit apartment building is part of a social impact investing model in Metro Denver, designed to help the community solve veteran homelessness more quickly by connecting housing directly to the homeless response system while preserving affordability indefinitely for all tenants at the property.

Mr. McNeil is among the many Colorado veterans who have faced housing insecurity or homelessness — a struggle that was but a chapter in his storied life.

Great strength and a great mind

“Growing up, I hit the books,” he explained. “I studied electronics, and I had a chemistry set.”

Mr. McNeil excelled at football throughout high school and was even training to play professionally. But fearing he would be injured, his parents dissuaded him from joining a collegiate or professional league. 

“God blessed me with great strength, a great mind, and great physical ability — which carried me into the military,” he said.

In 1984, at the age of 18, Mr. McNeil signed up for the United States Air Force. After a delayed entry, he entered in 1986 to active duty, until 1990 after which he remained on inactive reserve until 1994. During his service, Mr. McNeil spent much of his time in the continental U.S., primarily stationed in Santa Barbara County in California as a non-commissioned officer (NCO) and crew chief.

“I was able to apply my physical abilities for the United States itself,” he said. “I enjoyed serving my country.”

Music and family

While serving in the Air Force, Mr. McNeil was lead singer of his cover band called “The Risky Lovers.” They were popular, touring up and down California, attending the Soul Train Awards, and crossing paths with musical legends like Stevie Wonder and N.W.A. When he left the military, Mr. McNeil also left the band. For a while, he tried his luck in show business in California, playing music and performing as a voice-over artist. 

He eventually moved back to Colorado “to be a family man” and raise his four children. He also had to serve as a caretaker for his elderly parents. After his mother passed in 2008, he became the primary caregiver of his now-88-year-old father, who is hearing- and speech-impaired.

“I take care of him every day — I cook, I clean, I give him medications — and I just make sure he has a safe retirement,” he said. 

In order to make ends meet, Mr. McNeil has often had to hold two jobs. Then, around eight years ago, everything changed. 

“One minute I was doing very well, and the next minute, the house of cards fell in,” he said. 

The property he had called home was sold, causing the rent prices to skyrocket. He also was a victim of identity theft, which caused its own spate of problems with banking and finances. McNeil struggled to survive amidst housing insecurity.

“I found myself losing everything,” he said. “I had to commute from Colorado Springs to Denver or Pueblo, wherever there was work.”

That work included operating as a building engineer at a rehabilitation facility, interior demolition and maintenance in hotels, and other various temporary jobs — “wherever I was called,” he said.

Dannell McNeil working in his job at a local television station in the Metro Denver area.

“But you’re talking to a man who won’t give up. I fought for seven years to not be homeless.”

Housing instability and survival

During this transitional time, Mr. McNeil’s son would temporarily take care of Mr. McNeil’s elderly father, and Nr. McNeil sometimes stayed with him. “At times, I’d be there, laying on the floor or couch, still tending to my dad and all his needs,” he explained.

“The military taught me survival. It taught me how to go the extra mile, even when you think you can’t.”

dannell mcneil

When he wasn’t able to stay there, he found himself living in his car: “But sometimes in the car it wasn’t heated. Sometimes the car wouldn’t start. Luckily, I’m mechanically smart, and know how to fix it, but I’d have to fix it at 20 – 30 degrees below.”

This was when Mr. McNeil leaned on his training and experience to push through.

“The military taught me survival. It taught me how to go the extra mile, even when you think you can’t,” he said. “I was basically a sergeant — a man who had to lead by example. When the going gets tough, that’s when I had to dig in.”

While in Colorado Springs, Mr. McNeil connected with Rocky Mountain Human Services (RMHS) to access veterans’ support. Though the community is full of active duty military, the economy and cost of living made it difficult for veterans to survive. 

Despite the obstacles, a new chapter began as Mr. McNeil secured permanent employment with a local TV station in Denver, leveraging his entertainment industry experience. Upon relocation, he contacted RMHS again to help him locate local affordable housing.

“When you’re out there struggling…in my case, I’m on my hands and knees, mentally, physically, spiritually, to the Lord, saying every second, send me a miracle,” Mr. McNeil said.

Needing somewhere he could move in as soon as possible, RMHS encouraged Mr. McNeil to get in touch with the property manager at Park 16 Apartments in Aurora to check their availability. 

“And it worked!” Mr. McNeil said. “I’m so thankful. Park 16 has been a God-send.”

Finding a home at Park 16

Throughout 2023, Mr. McNeil enjoyed settling into his home at Park 16. He was able to move his father in with him as well.  

“When I come in and close the door, I have the security of knowing I’m in my own place.”

dannell mcneil

“When I come in and close the door, I have the security of knowing I’m in my own place,” he explained. “I am safe, my dad is safe. I can cook, clean, bathe, watch my TV or watch my phone — or watch my eyelids. And I can pray in peace. I can read my Bible in peace, or I can even work on music in peace.”

Though he’s still busy working at the TV station, he’s eager to get back into making music, with plans to release a new single this year. Mr. McNeil also remains close to his family. His oldest child is now 40, and he has twelve grandchildren. His eldest granddaughter is even interested in following in his footsteps and joining the U.S. Air Force and Space Force. 

Mr. McNeil now reflects on his journey with gratitude.

“I’m not the guy that’s gonna be out there ‘woe is me,’” or being picky saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this is not a four- or five-star place,’ To me, it is a five-star place because I can stick my key in the door and shut it on the other side, and do what I need to do to make it to the next day,” he explained.

“I’m just thankful and happy to be where I’m at.”