By Noelle Swan
Spare Change News
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.”
NOELLE SWAN is a freelance writer.
Photo: Thomas Chevalier