Boot Camp for Homeless Veterans

Battling addiction, some vets turn to a military-style shelter run with 'a soft heart and an iron hand.'

Call it boot camp for the homeless.

Housed in an institutional brick building on the city's beleaguered east side, Baltimore's Veterans Center (MCVET) takes aim at a stubborn portion of America's homeless: down-and-out veterans.

Ruled by Col. Charles Williams with a "soft heart and an iron hand," the center is an unusual but rigorous military-style operation that helps veterans - who often are coping with diagnoses of post-traumatic-stress syndrome - kick substance-abuse problems.

Michael Sutch was one such veteran.

This summer, the former Marine who served during the Vietnam War, found himself a virtual shut-in, drinking away the hours - and his life savings. He had been brought to the edge by a deteriorating relationship with his estranged wife and was facing an important job interview.

That's when a counselor suggested MCVET. Founded four years ago by veterans like Mr. Sutch, the center treats between 2,400 and 3,000 homeless people each day. About 1 in 5 of those are vets.

The demanding two-year program, which boasts an 80 percent success rate, is being hailed as a model to help the country's 250,000 homeless vets, who experts agree often require far more than a standard 30-day rehabilitation program.

Recognizing the special needs of veterans will help reduce their numbers on the streets, officials say. Though the program is long, organizers boast the rewards are great.

According to Pete Dougherty, director of the Homeless Program for the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, $5 million a year is slated to be spent on programs in 39 states ranging from mobile medical centers to drop-in clinics.

The trend, he says, is to create a one-stop shopping center similar to MCVET.

While Baltimore isn't the first, Mr. Dougherty says, the program here successfully illustrates ways to channel a diverse range of help to veterans.

"The program's comprehensive," he says. "There are very few programs with the array of services that MCVET has."

To get in, veterans must apply and show they have taken steps toward sobriety by enrolling in a rehabilitation program such as Alcoholic Anonymous. A new entrant spends 30 days in an emergency shelter, similar to a barracks, under the command of a platoon leader.

While the center is not a boot camp, participants are expected to follow rules and keep active by doing chores and attending class and counseling. Rank not only gives participants additional privileges but marks their progress, setting them up as role models.

Anyone caught with drugs or alcohol is automatically thrown out, and fighting is not allowed.

"We're different from a shelter," says Colonel Williams. "If a person just wants to sit here and eat and sleep, we ask them to leave. We're about change."

For Sutch, the regimented atmosphere was like coming home.

"When I was in the Marine Corps, I had this camaraderie. It was something very special to me," he says, "and when I got out, I lost that."

What most distinguishes MCVET is its all-in-one approach to helping the homeless. Mustering resources to help treat and train veterans, the center brings in everyone from expert psychologists from the VA, local physicians, job counselors, tutors, and computer specialists.

Williams says the fact that the center is run and partially staffed by veterans gives MCVET an edge in reaching fellow vets, who frequently mistrust government programs.

The center's 170 veterans come from around the country. While some can't read, many more are former professionals.

"[Residents] aren't [like] the homeless drifter who has been on the street for 30 years who has no skills at all," says Williams. "These are skilled folks who are caught up in their addictions."

After the 30-day trial period, a participant can go before a peer review board and request to move into transitional housing for up to two years. Further, MCVET has 80 studio apartments where vets can apply to live permanently.

The idea is to give veterans an instant sense of community, an alternative to falling back into their old ways.

MCVET receives $1.3 million in federal, state, and city funding, and has raised $200,000 on its own. In its fourth year, the center says it's too early to tell if its first graduates can maintain a sober life. As some inhabitants can testify, a person can stay sober for years and still slide back into addiction.

But judging by anecdotal evidence, the center gives veterans reason to hope.

Leroy John Coates, who came to the center in 1995 as an unemployed trucker, has been sober for more than a year and is now a city bus driver. A fired-up, bearish man, Mr. Coates returns to MCVET to lead an a cappella choir made up of other vets. Together they sound out a powerful voice in an empty cinder-block battleship-gray auditorium.

"I needed to get my life together, and this place gave me the ability to be stabilized," says Coates, who spent the year prior to entering MCVET living in front of City Hall, no longer able to afford the crack cocaine that put him there in the first place. "I was able to take a hard look at where I had been and where I wanted to go."

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