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Program gives homeless veterans a temporary haven


Some nights, Timothy Dale Lewis makes it to the downtown Baltimore Rescue Mission - which offers a meal, a shower and a bed for a few dollars.

Other nights, despite having a wad of cash from his temporary construction jobs, he doesn't. "I sleep on the streets sometimes," the 44-year-old Navy veteran said. "If I do drugs and use all my money, I can't stay at the mission because it costs $3. You get off work with $40 or $50 in your pocket, and the crack man's sitting on the corner with that good feeling."

Yesterday, before the sun was up, Lewis was on a bus headed for the Fort Howard Veterans Administration Medical Center. There he'll be a guest of Baltimore Stand Down 2000, an effort to get the city's and county's homeless and drug-addicted veterans off the street for a weekend, if not for a lifetime.

For three days and two nights, Lewis will have a bed and three meals - at no charge. He can have his shaggy salt-and-pepper beard trimmed by a barber, get a physical, a tooth-cleaning and new glasses.

"We want to get them back into society, and for some of these characters, it's their first time in," said Dale E. Smith, who is coordinating the event for the VA Maryland Health Care System.

Not that it was easy to get some people to come to Fort Howard. Volunteers passed out fliers and put up posters advertising the event. But the veterans had to get on the bus on their own.

"This is a street population - they don't listen to the radio, per se; they don't read the newspapers," Smith said. "They're very suspicious of institutions. They're very suspicious of the VA. This is not a pretty population. They're wounded. They have psychological problems. They're hard to warm up to."

The most recent count, taken six years ago, found 4,000 homeless veterans in Maryland, said Monica A. Smith, a VA spokeswoman.

The term "Stand Down" is taken from combat, when tired troops are taken from the front lines to relative safety and fed, clothed and showered, if possible.

The first Stand Down for the homeless, which took place in San Diego in 1988, was organized by two Vietnam veterans. Since then, cities across the country have borrowed the idea. Seventy-two events are scheduled for this year, according to the VA's Web site. This is Baltimore's first.

As many as 200 veterans are expected to spend the weekend in Army-issued tents that have turned the Fort Howard grounds into a makeshift camp. Dale Smith said he would find room for more if they came. Buses will return the men to various sites throughout the city and county tomorrow if they choose, but Smith said he hopes many will choose residential or substance abuse programs to help them stay clean.

Delbert Mitchell , a 46-year-old Marine Corps veteran, came yesterday looking for a way to escape the crack cocaine, beer and vodka that he said have been running his life. He hasn't worked in two years but says he doesn't need to - he uses his $800-a-month military pension to pay for the drugs, alcohol and rent on his mother's Northeast Baltimore basement.

But when a friend recently died "kind of in my arms" of a drug overdose, Mitchell said, he decided to try to clean himself up again. Treatment in 1996 had left him sober for two years - enough to land an apartment and a checking account - but it didn't stick, he said.

"I wasn't ready. Yes, I was. I just didn't want to face my responsibilities," he said. "They tell me I'm salvageable."

If he gets treatment, he might see his only granddaughter again. He said he didn't want to face the shame of failing again, of giving in to the people who "don't want you clean, especially those you're hanging with and buying drugs from. ... A lot of times I've reneged [on getting help], I didn't go through with it. I pray to God I won't" this time.

When they arrived at Fort Howard, the men were checked for weapons and were verified as veterans. Those who were not veterans were given food and clothes and sent back.

One of the 300 who volunteered to help with the Stand Down was Ben Michalski, a Baltimore native who four years ago spent six months living in his Ford Escort, drinking up to a half-gallon of vodka a day, he said. Once he had been a relatively successful contractor. Three divorces later, he realized he had a drinking problem.

On Feb.17, 1997, Michalski said, he entered a residential program 40 miles north of Baltimore. He has since resumed work and owns three townhouses he has rehabilitated.

"There are a lot of people out there who are really angry," Michalski said. "There are a lot of people who enjoy being homeless - they won't tell you that, but their behavior says it. If this saves one human being today, then mission accomplished."

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