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Veterans Helping Veterans: A Story Celebrating Service

Divya Kumaraiah, Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, explores the holistic and collaborative veterns service organization, the New England Center for Homeless Veterans.

In 1986, three Vietnam War veterans – Peace Foxx, Mark Helberg and Ken Smith – made a pilgrimage to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC.  They were surprised to find a large number of homeless veterans living in the park nearby and returned to Boston inspired to make a difference.

After learning that veterans comprise nearly one-third of the national homeless population, Foxx, Helberg, and Smith founded the Vietnam Veteran’s Workshop.  Through HUD’s Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, they acquired a 10-year lease on a former VA Outpatient Clinic in downtown Boston in 1989.  A year later, they opened the doors to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, one of the nation’s first veterans-only homeless shelters, now known as the New England Center for Homeless Veterans (NECHV).

NECHV was recognized by President George H.W. Bush as the “142nd Point of Light” – part of a vision that ordinary individuals across the country can make a difference in their communities.  NECHV takes a multi-pronged approach to the issues that challenge homeless veterans.  The center supports veterans through five core program areas: Emergency Shelter; Transitional Housing; Single Room Occupancy Apartments; Training and Employment; and Health Care and Case Management.

The Center collaborates with local programs to provide the services necessary to ease transition back to civilian life, especially for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  NECHV partners with the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) to provide emergency medical care for all residents.  The Center has a full-service in-house eye, medical, and dental clinic to provide on-going medical care.  NECHV takes a personal approach to addressing the issues facing our veterans – reducing the incidence of homelessness one veteran at a time.  Stephen Cunniff, Director of Community Affairs, explained that each veteran has his or her own case manager and that this commitment to individual needs inspired two special needs programs that the Center runs in partnership with the Veterans Administration.  The Senior Services Program caters specifically to the needs of veterans over the age of 65.  The Bridges Program provides clinical case management for veterans with chronic and persistent mental illness.  The Center also hosts a number of tailored drug abuse rehabilitation programs for their veterans that take an integrated approach to addressing mental health and addiction issues.

Cunniff finds the work “extremely rewarding,” which is reflected in their low staff turnover and abundance of volunteer and community support.  The organization collaborates with the government and private institutions to tackle a national problem on a local level.

Share your story of an organization that takes a community based approach to address a national challenge.

Divya Kumaraiah is the Policy Assistant to the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation