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Discharged to the streets

Armed forces veterans account for up to 25 percent of the homeless in America

At the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill, Andre Gaumont pauses for some hot soup while checking out the services available to him. At the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill, Andre Gaumont pauses for some hot soup while checking out the services available to him. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / November 8, 2009

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Sometime Wednesday on Veterans Day Rick Walker will take a moment and think about Fort Gordon in Georgia. The son of an Army aviator, he has happy memories of growing up around soldiers.

“Those were some of the happiest days of my life,’’ said Walker, who went on to serve in the Army. But after his discharge, his marriage fell apart, he became depressed, and he began sleeping in his van. From 2005 to 2007, he spent his nights sleeping upright in the driver’s seat in a parking lot in Leesburg, Va.

Two years ago, Walker, 53, raised some gas money to travel to see his son in Maine and heard about a housing program for homeless vets in Lynn. Since then, he has lived in a rooming house there with 14 other veterans.

While advocates still say veterans account for as many as 25 percent of America’s homeless population, Walker’s story of finding subsidized housing - through the aid of federal grants - is becoming more typical as the US Department of Veterans Affairs has increased funding to help place homeless veterans. During the last four fiscal years, the VA’s allocation to transitional housing jumped from $92.7 million to $171.6 million. During that time, the number of homeless veterans in the United States has dropped from about 196,000 to 131,000.

In Massachusetts, the VA plans to spend about $8 million this year to provide 1,137 beds for the estimated 1,750 homeless vets in the state. According to Pete Dougherty, director of the VA Homeless Program Office in Washington, more veterans are getting off the streets and into housing. Last year, there were 2,255 homeless vets in Massachusetts.

Dougherty said the federal funding boost shows the government is “serious about eliminating a national problem.’’

Homeless veterans, and administrators they meet as they try to rebuild their lives, say a combination of factors usually contributes. The overlay often includes post-traumatic stress disorder, financial insolvency, substance abuse, alcohol addiction, physical disabilities, and mental health issues.

“The largest bulk are Vietnam-era vets - they represent 80 percent of the vets who are homeless,’’ said Gerald Charmical, the VA’s New England homeless coordinator.

Locally the route to transitional housing for veterans often begins at the area’s largest homeless shelters, such as the Lynn Emergency Shelter, the Salem Mission, and the Lowell Transitional Living Center. Shelter administrators say homeless veterans account for about 10 percent of occupancy of shelter beds. At the shelters, the homeless are assigned caseworkers who make evaluations and help them set goals. Also, the VA sends caseworkers to shelters looking for veterans. Often one of the first steps includes a visit to a detox facility, which can last up to 90 days.

For those who don’t require detox, most of the shelters offer mental health and job counseling and help veterans get their papers in order to apply for subsidized public housing.

There are 62 transitional housing units in the region for veterans. The Lynn Shelter Association has 15, and the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill offers 47.

“I think there are less rooms for vets than there should be,’’ said Kim Graham, who runs the homeless veterans transitional housing program for the Lynn Shelter Association. The program is subsidized by the Lynn Housing Authority and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and offers 16 hours of on-site case management per day to veterans.

At the rooming house, counselors deal with mental health, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and job training. Last year, five formerly homeless veterans moved out and found permanent subsidized housing, and another bought a house.

Graham said each new group of vets deal with issues at their own pace.

“Sometimes veterans come in and get counseling and training and move on very quickly. Other times it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground,’’ she said.

In Haverhill, the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center runs the largest transitional housing and counseling complex - with the exception of the VA in Boston and Bedford - in this area of the state. The center is located on the grounds of a former Catholic church and is funded by the VA, HUD, the Department of Labor, and the state. Like the Lynn program, the Haverhill center offers extensive mental health counseling and job retraining. In addition, veterans receive a box lunch and a cooked dinner each day.

John Ratka, the center’s executive director, said that with a lot of support veterans can make the transition from the streets to an apartment and a job. Ratka said alcohol or substance abuse is not allowed on the property, and the group holds Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings every week.

With three buildings to house the 47 men, Ratka established a multistep program to reentering society. When the homeless first arrive, they’re assigned to either the former rectory or learning center.

“We probably see these guys five times a day, their needs are that great,’’ said Ratka.

Newcomers are given a room and share a living room and bathrooms.

“They’re also given a kitchen so they can learn how to cook and live more independently,’’ he said.

After six months, most of the men move to the center’s other building, a 22-bed house known as The Mansion. At The Mansion, independent living is stressed and residents go to school, perform community service, and work at jobs.

Bob Hall has lived in The Mansion for three years and has been sober for five. Now 54, he said his drinking escalated during his four years in the Coast Guard.

After his marriage failed and he was laid off nine years ago, he drank until he was out of money. In 2004, he found a bed at a New Hampshire shelter, and then came to Haverhill.

While he works as a part-time cook at the center, on Veterans Day Hall will be thinking about how he wants a full-time job and his own place.

“The economy is so bad, but I’ll take just about anything.’’

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.com.

Home from war, but homeless There are about 131,000 homeless veterans today, about a quarter of the total US adult homeless population. Twice as many veterans are homeless at some point during the course of a year. There were 196,000 in 2007 and 154,000 in 2008 . The number of homeless Vietnam-era veterans - about 80% of the total - exceeds the number that died in the war (58,148) . About 70% of homeless veterans suffer from alcohol or drug abuse problems; 45% have mental illness. There are an estimated 1,750 homeless veterans in Massachusetts. There are 62 transitional housing units in the region for veterans: 47 in Haverhill, 15 in Lynn. Sources: US Dept. of Veterans Affairs; VA Boston Healthcare System, Veterans Northeast Outreach Center, Lynn Shelter Assoc.
STORIES BY STEVEN ROSENBERG / GLOBE STAFF