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My Summer With Another Inconvenient Truth

Thirty-three percent of all homeless males in America are military veterans.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that more than 275,000 veterans are homeless on any given night and that more than 500,000 experience homelessness over the course of a year. I spent my summer with these homeless veterans, serving as a teacher, planner and custodian of over $15,000 in donations from the HBS community.

In the heart of the Boston financial district and in the shadow of City Hall plaza-just a few miles from the HBS campus-stands the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans (NESHV), the nation’s first and largest veteran-specific homeless shelter.

For me, the words “homeless shelter” unfortunately evoke images of a run-down building in a rough part of town, most likely under-staffed, over-crowded, and inadequately maintained-a dead end on the road of life. I imagine a stereotypical soup kitchen, the epitome of a societal hand out. I was surprised to find that, although the shelter serves more than 220,000 individual meals annually, they are anything but a soup kitchen. They are a highly professional organization that resembles a military barracks more than a homeless shelter. Not only is this a massive operation on all counts-from real estate to annual budget-it is also very effectively managed by a talented and qualified staff, who both demand and inspire a sense of pride and potential in their clients.

Established in 1990, the NESHV has helped more than 15,000 veterans achieve the organizational mission “To rehabilitate and reintegrate homeless, unemployed, and under-employed veterans by providing them with the tools they need to move toward self-sufficiency.” Structurally, NESHV occupies a ten-floor office building on Court Street, has a 306-occupant capacity and maintains almost 100 employees. Funding comes from a combination of a various grants and charitable giving, and the annual budget is $6.2 million. The organization offers services in emergency shelter, transitional housing, single-room occupancy apartments, daily meals, a clothing store, medical care, optical care, dental care and case management. NESHV also offers robust counseling services to address mental health, substance abuse, AA meetings, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and relationship management.

This substance-free facility is based in discipline, similar to a military barracks. From personal conduct to facilities management, they run a tight ship. Their standards of excellence permeate the entire organization from top to bottom.

The CEO, Larry Fitzmaurice, is a former vice president of State Street Bank as well as a Vietnam Veteran, and a talented senior staff with a wealth of for-profit and non-profit experience joins him. The NESHV Board of Directors represents some of the best of Boston business. Their individual expertise and collective community relationships provide significant value add to the shelter in many positive regards. Those who work at “ground level” are equally qualified and enthusiastic, from the VTS staff to the case managers to the operations staff.

When I first inquired about volunteering at the shelter as a community service component of my summer, I envisioned myself working in their kitchen one day a week, or perhaps as part of the operations staff. I ended up working not one but three days a week in the shelter’s Veterans Training School, a robust educational program that represents the very nexus of the shelter’s transitional goal to be a “rest stop” rather than a “parking lot” on the road of life. Resume-writing workshops, employment training programs, computer software training, website design and life skills training are just some of the broad curriculum offerings. Much of the school’s curriculum results in either vocational certification (such as Security Guard or Commerical Drivers License) or transferable academic credits toward programs at Bunker Hill Community College through a recently established partnership. The Veterans Training School has some full-time staff and faculty but also relies on volunteer instructors and tutors from the faculty and student body of area colleges and business communities.

Through donations raised during last year’s “Tent Drive” fundraiser, sponsored by the HBS Armed Forces Club (AFAA), the Veterans Training School was able to continue to upgrade computers, improve its school resource room, and increase administrative resources for updated curriculum content.

This week, from Tuesday morning, March 27, through Thursday morning, March 29, the AFAA’s annual “Tent Drive” fundraiser will again support the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. Club members will occupy a tent in Spangler Lawn for three days and two nights to raise both awareness and donations (all donations are tax deductible). Please consider giving to this worthwhile cause and the effective organization actively addressing it-just a few miles from the HBS campus.

March 26, 2007
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