Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘New England Center for Homeless Veterans’

Are Female Veterans Being Left Out In The Cold?

In Poverty, Social Issues on November 16, 2012 at 9:40 am

This article first was published by Spare Change News on November 16, 2012.

Photo Credit: Richard VanHouten, Veteran’s Support Organization

After leaving the U.S. Air Force, Staff Sergeant Barbara Barnes spent years living in fear of stray shadows and sudden noises that could trigger flashbacks to trauma from her days of military service.

Barnes never served abroad or saw combat. She served as an administrative officer from 1984 to 1990, processing legal documents on military bases in Louisiana and Kansas.

The trauma began in 1985, she says, when a commanding officer sexually assaulted her. She reported the attack to his superiors but felt too embarrassed to seek counseling. She said that the officer was reassigned to another unit, but for her, the trauma remained.

“I thought that I would just never get over that stuff, that it would just haunt me for the rest of my life,” Barnes said.

She turned to alcohol and started to abuse prescription drugs. She struggled with addiction, lost contact with her three children, and landed on the streets of Charleston, S.C. And during her long downward spiral, it never occurred to her to ask for help as a military veteran.

She wasn’t the only vet to descend into this particular nightmare.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that 6,500 female veterans are homeless and that as many as 20 percent of them were sexually assaulted while in the service. The department has declared military sexual trauma “an epidemic” and a major risk factor for post-service homelessness.

Women are four times more likely to become homeless after leaving the service than their male counterparts, according to the VA.

While homelessness among all veterans has declined in recent years, the number of homeless female veterans doubled between 2006 and 2011, according to a report earlier this year by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

In 2011, the federal Veteran’s Health Administration responded to the crisis by establishing a National Call Center for Women Veterans.

This year, the VA’s Women Veterans’ Task Force highlighted homelessness as one of the key issues facing female veterans in a draft of its “Strategies for Serving Women Veterans” report, which the VA has submitted for public comment.

Wearing a badge with her rank and service information, Barnes sat in a conference room at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) and recalled trying to drown her traumatic memories in alcohol.

“I hit the bottom. When you get to the bottom of the wine bottle, there’s still a hole left. There’s not enough wine in the world to take care of that,” she said.

Barnes says she had been in her share of rehabilitation programs, but it was not until she connected with the VA that she was able to access comprehensive services that met all of her needs.

She didn’t even think of herself a veteran until 2006, when a woman approached her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and told her that the VA had programs to help people like her.

As the prevalence of homelessness among female veterans has become apparent over the last few years, state and federal agencies have taken steps to connect veterans with services they need.

“We know that women veterans are at risk for homlessness at a higher rate than their male counterparts. We know that their needs are often diffferent. But at the same time, it’s more common for them to not necessarily identify themselves as veterans,” said Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness (ICHH) director Elizabeth Rogers.

The ICHH and the Women’s Veteran’s Network, a state agency that serves as a central resource for female veterans across the state, are working together to reach out to those who are experiencing or on the verge of homelessness.

“[T]here is a need for finding creative ideas for reaching people in the community before they become homeless,” said Rogers. Outreach efforts could occur at the welfare department, at programs distributing emergency food resources, or even through local school systems, she said.

Another NECHV resident, Buck Sergeant Jane Garrow, never considered herself a veteran either, despite having served three years in the air force. By the time someone suggested she seek veterans’ services—23 years after her honorable discharge—she already had spent two years living on the streets.

“Not a lot of women serve overseas in wartime, so we didn’t think we qualified as veterans,” said Garrow, who served as a jet engine mechanic in California from 1978 to 1981.

Garrow recalls meeting many social service providers over the years as she struggled with alcoholism and homelessness, but she did not recognize that she qualified for veterans’ services.

“It wasn’t just us that didn’t realize that we were vets, it was the people trying to help us,” Garrow said, adding with a hint of frustration, “I would go into detox every once in a while, but nobody told me about the VA.”

Garrow says she joined the air force because she had grown bored with working on an assembly line building missiles for the military contractor Raytheon. She recalls hearing the Village People song “In The Navy” night after night, promising pleasure, treasure, and the opportunity to learn science and technology.

In 1978, she enlisted in the air force with hope of gaining new skills that would translate to a better job when she later returned to civilian life.

During her service, she says, she worked her way up to become a jet engine mechanic, served as the first woman to work in the maintenance hangars in California, and graduated to senior airman.

Upon her discharge, however, she learned that her military training did not count toward certification to work on civilian aircraft. She returned to her native Cape Cod where she struggled for years with alcoholism and ended up on the streets.

Today she has secured a housing voucher with the help of the housing program at NECHV and is in the process of looking for an apartment.

The New England Center for Homeless Veterans first started seeing women seeking services in the mid-1990s, said NECHV director of community affairs Stephen Cunniff. In 1996, the shelter added a separate and secure women’s residence with 16 beds, a private TV room, and two showers for women awaiting permanent housing.

“There’s nothing that we need that we can’t get from here,” Garrow said. “They may not offer it here, but they know who to call to get it.”

Any woman with an honorable discharge from any branch of the U.S. military can access a case manager and can participate in shelter programs, including housing assistance, employment training, legal services, medical care, and meals, says Helen Wooten, NECHV director of case management.

Wooten adds that NECHV’s reputation for extensive services and rapid housing placement has prompted many out-of-state organizations to refer veterans to Boston.

Barnes says that a case manager at the VA in New York City suggested that she move to Boston and see if NECHV could help her.

For the past couple months, Barnes has been sleeping at a transitional shelter in Jamaica Plain and commuting to NECHV for additional services. She has entered counseling, which she says has helped her deal with her military sexual trauma. She reconnected with her children with the help of the Boston VA and is currently in the process securing her own subsidized apartment with the help of her case manager.

Barnes credits NECHV with providing her with the tools and resources to help herself.

“I know every time I walk through that front door that I’ll never leave the same again. I’ll be a changed woman. I’ll be an empowered woman.”


New Initiative Targets Homelessness Among Veterans

In Poverty, Social Issues on January 29, 2012 at 2:12 pm

This article was first published by Spare Change News on January 27, 2012 and online at on January 29, 2012.


At 60 years old, Art Griffin is about to graduate from UMass Boston with a bachelor’s degree in social psychology. His eyes brighten when he talks about his post-graduation plans. “I want to work with veterans,” he says. The slight tremor in his hands briefly calms as he tilts his chin with a hint of pride. “That’s like a dream to me.”

For Griffin, veteran’s services represent more than a career path. New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) in particular has been his lifeline, his connection to counseling, housing, and educational support.

Tremendous progress has been made in the statewide struggle to end homelessness among veterans. Since January 2011, the number of homeless veterans has dropped by 20 percent. Still, over 1,200 veterans have no permanent home to call their own. Every night, NECHV alone houses between 300 and 350 veterans in temporary and emergency housing.

The Patrick/Murray administration announced recently a new federally funded initiative to fund sufficient additional services to connect 50 more veterans with permanent housing, psychiatric care, and peer counseling.

The initiative comes as welcome news to Andrew McCawley, NECHV president and CEO. While the reduction in the numbers of homeless veterans in Massachusetts is encouraging, McCawley says that demand will continue to increase as more members of the armed services return from deployment, making additional investments in veteran’s services crucial.

“I think [the pilot program] will go well and make a significant difference in 50 people’s lives as well as bring a significant social savings,” McCawley says. He pointed out that NECHV has been providing these kinds of services for 20 years and has already seen ample evidence that they work.

Griffin represents just one of NECHV’s success stories.

Following a 24-year career in the army—including an 18-month tour in Vietnam, service as a career electrical engineer, and a stint as a drill sergeant—and a run-in with the law, with a subsequent stint in the Vermont prison system, Griffin meandered through the country, spending time in Tennessee, Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, and Florida on a national roll through sidewalks, shelters, and soup kitchens.

When Griffin checked into NECHV, he was sure he was just passing through. He chuckles to himself and shakes his head remembering. “The whole first year I was here, I kept telling my case manager I didn’t need any help. I’m not staying.”

He ended up staying three years, before he was placed in permanent housing. And he still can’t stay away. He traded in his green resident’s badge for the red visitor’s badge—something of a rite of passage in the NECHV world—but he keeps coming back.

Griffin says he sees many former residents at various support groups, like one he attends for veterans suffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. “That’s a big help when you’re out on your own and struggling to stay away from drugs and alcohol,” he says.

“It’s not healthy to sit home and vegetate, so I come down here and volunteer,” he says. He might jump in and serve lunch if the kitchen is short on volunteers, take reporters on a tour of the facility, or help sort donations. “I’ve just always been that way,” he says with a small shrug.

He said he returns to meetings as much for his friends as for himself. “I don’t want others to show up and not see anyone they know. Then they might think they’re on their own,” he said.

For many veterans returning to the states from deployment, home can be a lonely place. Career military professionals spent their lives living in close quarters with comrades following a regimented structure. Veterans’ organizations like NECVH can provide a familiar sense of community and order.

An antique dog tag press is on display outside one “deck,” or sleeping quarters. Temporary residents are issued bunks and lockers. Every morning resident volunteer “lieutenants” patrol the decks, and medics are available for “sick call.”

As Griffin steps off the elevator onto “Deck 2,” he cups his hand to his mouth and calls out, “Female on deck.” The warning bounces down the linoleum tile, is repeated by a toothy veteran lounging in a swivel chair, and returns in muffled echoes from veterans in the bunks. It is an old system of communication, reminiscent of marching soldiers passing orders down the line. Old habits die hard.

Griffin shrugs and smiles. “It makes them feel like home.”

Dramatic Decline in Veteran Homelessness Inspires Mass. Program

In Poverty, Social Issues on January 17, 2012 at 9:26 am

This article was first published by New England Post on January 10, 2012.

Courtesy of Noah Fournier

“You’re welcome here, but ultimately we really want you to leave.”

That is the message Andrew McCawley hopes to convey to the more than 300 veterans living in transitional and emergency housing at the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV) each night. “Our emphasis is on helping folks that struggle with chronic homelessness to progress toward independent living.”

McCawley, who heads the center, served in the Navy for 27 years as an officer and aviator. He has since traded in his naval uniform for a suit and wears miniature dog tags pinned to his lapel—the symbol of the NECHV. His business card does not solely advertise the services of a shelter. Instead it reads, “Providing homeless veterans with the tools for independent living.”

The organization’s efforts (combined with those of many other area organizations) appear to be working.

New figures from the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services indicate a 21 percent reduction since January, 2011, in the number of homeless veterans living in Massachusetts, almost double the rate of decline seen nationally over that period.

“We are ending homelessness among veterans,” said Gov. Deval Patrick (D) announcing the dramatic decline at a press conference last week. “Today, thanks to the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Murray, our Department of Veterans’ Services and our federal partners, we are seeing significant progress. But we must keep going to ensure that the men and women who have served our country in uniform have access to all the benefits their service has earned them.”

Appearing with Patrick, Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray (D) applauded existing services for homeless veterans and announced a federally funded pilot program to transition an additional 50 veterans into permanent housing and connect them with mental health and peer counseling services.

The $323,000 pilot program will complement programs already offered through an existing network of veterans’ services. The Department of Veterans’ Services will collaborate with NECHV, Pine Street Inn, St. Francis House, and HopeFound in Boston, the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea, the Lynn Housing Authority, and Veterans’ Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill.

Every veteran comes to these programs with a unique set of circumstances. Many suffer from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder; others struggle with substance abuse, and other mental health-related issues. Some need job training and other need life skills to learn to live outside the structure of the military.

Courtesy of Noah Fournier

“No two cases are the same,” McCawley says. “There’s no one end state or single path to an end state.” The new grant will supplement more than a dozen others that fund local veterans’ organizations.

About two thirds of NECHV’s funding comes from public sources and the rest from private donations. Donations of clothing and essentials stock the center store where residents can take what they need from racks of suits for job interviews, packages of socks, long underwear, and rows of toiletries. Volunteers come in groups and as individuals to staff the lunch lines each day. And the center’s 100-year-old building in the heart of Boston recently got a facelift thanks to a crew of volunteers from Home Depot’s Aprons in Action program.

In addition to providing emergency and temporary shelter for clients, the center houses 60 veterans in permanent apartments. Residents receive meals, a mailing address, access to a laundry room, and supplies from the center store.

Any veteran, regardless of housing status, can participate in support groups, get a hot lunch, and receive job training. Staffers and volunteers assist NECHV clients in online job hunting, applying for subsidized housing, and researching educational opportunities.