BOSTON – The New England Center and Home for Veterans, located in a nondescript building near the State Street MBTA stop, is, like the population it serves, in transition.
Serving more than 900 veterans a year, the NECHV is in the middle of a 34-million-dollar construction project that will increase its services, expand their community outreach programs, and continue their push to become less a shelter, and more transitional housing.
“Really the idea is to make it easier for veterans to access services,” said CJ Beck, who has been with the organization since 2012. Originally, Beck worked with the NECHV as part of AmeriCorps, but liked the organization so much, he applied for a permanent position and now holds the title of Philanthropic Officer for Community Engagement.
NECHV, Beck said, has 97 permanent beds and 178 transitional beds and offers services of all kinds ranging from physical and mental health, substance abuse, employment, and, of course, housing.
A major challenge for the NECHV, said Beck, is “finding permanent, supportive stable long term housing for people that’s affordable too.”
Causes for homelessness are as varied as the veterans themselves. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) website, “a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.”
While a completely accurate count is difficult, a recent Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study, “39,471 veterans are homeless on any given night.”
The site further says that an additional 1.4 million veterans are considered “at risk” of becoming homeless.
If the figures are discouraging, Beck says that innovative ideas and new initiatives are at work to get homeless veterans into safe and supportive housing and it’s reduced the time that veterans are at the center.
“The average stay used to be about 1-2 years,” said Beck, “Now it’s about three to six months.”
He credits this decrease to a new model called “Housing First” model. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the Housing First model stresses “an immediate and primary focus on helping individuals and families quickly access and sustain permanent housing.”
Once suitable housing is found, and someone is placed, tenants are required to follow a standard lease. Services are also provided to a person on a short or long-term basis, depending on need, to help them be successful in following those terms.
Under the old housing model, Beck said, veterans were required to go through a program and complete certain requirements, depending on their needs. Once the veteran reached a “critical point” housing would be discussed.
Under the Housing First model, housing is a priority “as soon as you step through the door.”
“We also have training and employment efforts here on sight as well,” said Beck.
Major corporations, according to Beck, visit the center and work with the veterans and help them with their resumes.
“Sometimes even creating resumes from the ground up,” said Beck.
Company representatives also work with veterans by doing mock interviews, providing feedback and helping them “pitch” themselves to a potential employer. There are also substance abuse support groups for veterans in recovery as well as legal aid and meal service. The NECHV operates on a “sober living” model.
A Volunteer’s Perspective
Sue Li, of Jamaica Plain, helps serve veterans in the dinner line. She said she started volunteering through the website Boston Cares at www.bostoncares.org.
Li said the web site allows someone to search for volunteer opportunities online and schedule times to volunteer. The scheduling is flexible and a person can tailor it to their schedule.
“If you have free time, you sign up,” said Li.
She said Boston Cares has “tons” of projects and volunteer opportunities. She said that she enjoys her time at the NECHV. She said her volunteer work has helped her “gain a deeper understanding” of the homeless veteran community.
“The people here really appreciate what you do,” Li said.
When asked what she got out of her volunteer experience, Li said: “I think, human connections…you interact with a whole different population and that opened my eyes to know the people outside my little bubble.”
Beck said that if someone is looking to help a veteran, they can contact the NECHV directly or their local veterans service officer.
Construction and Aesthetics
Beck acknowledged that the massive construction project “put a bit of a strain on the capacity for implementing new volunteer opportunities,” but he says there’s a much larger picture in mind after the project is completed.
Beck points out the marble floor that has been uncovered as part of the project, the decorative ceiling that used to be covered by a drop-down as well as new and colorful spaces for classes and for clinical examinations. NECHV partners with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program to provide immediate medical needs for residents.
One of Beck’s favorite parts is that the building has its own coin-op laundry. No, he said, it’s not the most “glamorous” parts of the project, but he believes it says something about the center’s mission.
“We do really want to encourage people to stay clean while they’re with us, in more ways than one,” said Beck. “We want them to feel really dignified while they’re living with us.”
Near one of the building’s two bank vaults (the facility at one point was a bank) is a makeshift meal line. Part of the construction is a new cafeteria for the Center. New elevators are being installed for use of disabled veterans.
“Actually,” said Beck about the project, “it’s a wonderful transition.”
Beck said that the construction project serves more than just a practical purpose. He said a “huge piece” of the project was to make the facility look and feel more inviting, which can have a positive impact on the veterans by making a center “a space where they really feel welcome.”
Busy Times and Donations
Beck stops at a storeroom, containing all manner of donated clothes. Beck said a very busy time for the Center ranged from September to New Year’s. People start thinking about veterans in September, he said, with the anniversary of 9/11. In November, there is Veteran’s Day, shortly followed by Thanksgiving and then the holiday season.
“It’s the time of year where everyone wants to give back,” said Beck.
People may come in to decorate the center or may bring in a special meal for the veterans and “Have the opportunity to serve the same meal that they’re sponsoring. People get to see where their dollars are going and “get to see the impact that they’re making.”
But, in the spring months – March, April and so on – are times when the center could also use a fundraiser or a drive. However, he also wants people to help nonprofit organizations like the NECHV, in the most effective way. And, to do that, he suggests community engagers to do a little bit of homework.
“What I would always suggest to people is: write into an organization before doing a drive,” said Beck.
“I think it’s critical for community engagers to speak to the organizations directly and say: ‘what do you need?’”
Even when a veteran successfully transitions out of the NECHV, support doesn’t end.
“We realize that the critical period is the point where people start to transition out of the center,” said Beck. “It’s a lot of change.”
To that end, another tool in the box is the concept of what Beck called “Community-based services for veterans” in which the veteran will be a client of the NECHV and will become part of the “Supportive services for Veteran Families Program.” This is an outreach program where case managers and clinicians will monitor the veteran’s progress in their community.
All Branches, All Conflicts, All States
Beck said that while it is the New England Center for Homeless Veterans, they have helped veterans from all 50 states and from all branches including the Merchant Marine and from all conflicts. He said the average age of veterans they serve is about 57, and that could lead to a need for different services down the road.
“By and large, we’re recognizing we need to change our services to really start tackling elderly services as well,” Beck said.
He said there was a “small uptick” in veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“It’s not a huge jump or a huge spike,” said Beck, “but it’s certainly noticeable.”
He said that after the Vietnam conflict and how veterans were treated upon their return, the country has made it a point to welcome veterans home, regardless of their feelings about the conflict.
“There are so many people in the United States, especially in Massachusetts who are connected to veterans in some way.”
For more information on veterans and volunteer opportunities in the Boston area, please click on the following links: