The New England Center for Homeless Veterans: aiding America’s troubled heroes

The New England Center for Homeless Veterans is one of Boston’s largest organizations working to combat the widespread issue of homelessness, specifically amongst New England’s large population of homeless, struggling veterans.

Officially founded in 1990, the NECHV mission statement reads: “The Mission of the New England Center for Homeless Veterans is to extend a helping hand to homeless men and women veterans who are addressing the challenges of: addiction trauma, severe and persistent mental illness, and/or, unemployment , and who will commit themselves to sobriety, non-violence, and working for personal change. We are recognized as one of the most effective private veteran’s transition programs in the country.”

NECHV is home to a variety of programs to help improve the quality of life for struggling veterans. Homelessness is a severe and widespread problem amongst the veteran population of the United States. According to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans Fact Sheet, 26 per cent of the country’s homeless population are veterans, and 33 per cent of the male homeless population are veterans. In 2005, the VA Northeast Program Evaluation reported that male veterans are 1.3 times more likely to become homeless than non-veteran males; and female veterans and 3.6 times more likely. The Department of Veteran affairs estimate that nearly 196,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and approximately 400,000 veterans experience homelessness each year. To make matters worse, 70per cent of homeless veterans struggle with substance abuse problems, and 45 per cent suffer from some form of mental illness.

NECHV is the leading organization in the region designed to rehabilitate and assist homeless veterans. These staggering statistics obviously give rise to the question of why so many veterans struggle to find homes and healthy lifestyles once they return from war, especially in the Boston area. Stephen Cunniff, Director of Community Affairs at NECHV, feels that it is a complicated, multi-dimensional issue.

“It’s pretty complex. Mainly, it is a shortage of affordable housing in Boston, high unemployment rates, and a high rate of disabled veterans. All of this compounded with serious issues of mental illness and substance abuse,” said Cunniff.

The New England Center for Homeless Veterans is an organization that seeks to reverse this alarming trend through a set of comprehensive programs for veterans. The first main program they offer is the Veteran’s Training School, which works to get veteran’s trained for employment quickly.

“One of our biggest programs is the Veteran’s Training school that helps veterans directly address their economic problems. The school offers free tuition and is a vocational track that ideally leads directly into employment,” said Cunniff. “The school offers security officer training, a culinary arts program, a commercial driver’s license course, and a number of computer courses. We have unemployment and housing specialists that work with our veterans and help them find new jobs and housing.”

According to the Boston VA’s Health Care for Homeless Program, 61 per cent of homeless veterans are diagnosed with a serious psychiatric disorder, 70 per cent are substance abusers, and 48 per cent are dually diagnosed. The NECHV has developed a careful, multi-pronged approach to combating these problems, beginning with “Project Access,” which is NECHV’s intensive mental health counseling program that has been offered since 1988. According to NECHV’s website: ” the Project Access staff three licensed mental health clinicians, a licensed social worker, and a psychiatric clinical nurse specialist provide specialized assessment, case management, psychotherapeutic, referral and follow-up services to mentally ill and dually-diagnosed (substance abuse and mental illness) clients who reside at the Center.”

Project Access has proven to be extremely successful in helping to address veteran’s main problems and get them back on their feet in society. According to their website, last year, the Project Access staff provided 205 special-needs clients with a variety of therapeutic and support services. Of these 205 clients, 53 obtained permanent housing and 46 per cent increased their overall income and benefits in the time following their treatment at NECHV.

As Stephen Cunniff explains, from the moment a struggling veteran walks in the doors at NECHV, the staff on hand immediately works to develop a structured plan to get them back into society as a functioning, successful person.

“From day 1, every client receives a case manager, who works with that veteran to develop an exit strategy. That means determining what is necessary to get this person from homelessness to independent living,” said Cunniff. He went on to explain how the majority of the time, substance abuse is the factor landing veteran’s on the streets.

“We start by figuring out what led the veteran to where they are. Often the answer is a combination of substance abuse and mental illness stemming from their military service. It’s not uncommon for veterans to self-medicate, which leads to addiction. Often this leads to rock bottom, which is when many veterans come to us.”

Once a veteran is evaluated and determined to have serious substance abuse problems, they enter a 180-day post-detox holding Program, where they work directly with intervention specialist. Veterans struggling with both substance abuse and mental illness (problems commonly combined) spend time in the Dual-Diagnosis Counseling center, where medical professionals work directly to address their difficult psychological struggles. Mr. Cunniff also explained how another Boston organization aimed at aiding the homeless assists NECHV in caring for their unhealthy veterans.

“We also have an on-site health center staffed with nurses from the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. They take care of all the clients’ medical needs and help them to enroll in health insurance plans,” said Cunniff.

NECHV is equipped with ample resources designed specifically to improve the physical, mental, and emotional states of the veteran’s who come to the center. Another major program offered by the NECHV is the Transitional Housing Program (THP), which, according to the NECHV website, “provides those clients who are ready to transition to permanent housing with one-on-one housing search assistance and an array of supportive services designed to assist them in achieving long-term self-sufficiency.” The THP staff works to help the veteran’s to develop the life skills needed to transition into housing in the community.

NECHV also offers of short range assistance options for homeless veterans. According to Stephen Cunniff, “We have 59 single room occupancies in the building, so that offers one immediate option for veterans.” The NECHV also provides veterans with three meals a day. Annually, they serve 145,000 meals. They also have a clothing store that offers free clothing for veterans. However, Cunniff went on to explain how while the center does offer these short-term options, the organization is ideally intermediary from the get-go.

“The goal is for our services to be transitional in nature. By having the veterans work with a case manager from day one, we are getting the veterans in programs designed to lead them to employment and housing,” said Cunniff.

In recent years, the New England Center for Homeless Veteran’s has been forced to tailor their programs to focus upon a new generation of troubled veterans. For the majority of the past twenty years or so, the center has dealt almost primarily with Vietnam and Gulf War veterans, with an average age of 40-45 years old. However, in recent years, this has changed drastically.

According to the Homeless Veterans Provider, over 2,000,000 US troops have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since September 11th , 2001. Among returning troops, nearly 40per cent of soldiers report symptoms of psychological distress. These challenges include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and traumatic brain injuries.

Stephen Cunniff commented on the effects this distinct demographic shift has had upon their organization, “Of the 230 veterans currently in shelter, 95 are from the post 9/11 period. For the future, we are looking more to address the needs of these younger veterans.”

The means of doing this, as Cunniff went on to explain, begin with incorporating new technologies into their communication systems. “The generational needs are different. Here at NECHV, we are working to gear our programs towards these younger veterans. This means improving our technology and better using Facebook and multimedia. This stuff is still new to us,” said Cunniff.

According to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans Web site, “the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that more than 275,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and more than 500,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year.”

Photo:REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst