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At Baltimore rehab center, discipline seen as key to ending veteran homelessness

Long-term approach boasts 70 percent success rate

Two months ago, Richard Newman was living in whatever abandoned house or car he could find in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood he calls "the devil's playground."

A former nuclear weapons specialist for the Army, Newman, 44, once owned a $300,000 home in the suburbs and a comfortable lifestyle. But heroin addiction had taken it all away.

"I was existing day-to-day in this almost animalistic way, just fighting to stay alive in the streets," the Baltimore native says.

Newman, who served at a missile site in the 1990s, now lives in a barracks-like room, attends daily life-skills classes and meets regularly with men and women traveling the same road, whether it's at nightly Narcotics Anonymous meetings or on occasional outings such as, a week ago, an Orioles game at Camden Yards.

He's one of the newer residents at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education & Training in Baltimore, a nonprofit facility for homeless veterans known as MCVET.

And he's glad for the "safe haven" and the rare opportunity it offers to develop long-term plans.

"Once you're out in the streets — even when you decide to try to reestablish yourself — it's 'good luck,'" says Newman. "You don't even have a desk to sit down and handle an application. The odds of doing it by yourself are so small."

The problem of veteran homelessness in Baltimore, and in the United States in general, is substantial by any measure.

Exact figures are hard to come by, but the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that more than 45,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. They make up about 11 percent of the total adult homeless population.

Veterans are as vulnerable as any group to the factors that contribute to homelessness: shortages of affordable health care and housing, the scarcity of good-paying jobs.

But they can also face special challenges in this area, says Vidia Dhanraj, the director of homeless services for the Baltimore mayor's office.

The prevalence among veterans of substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, and inadequate social and family support worsens the problem, Dhanraj says.

The crisis is severe enough that in 2014, the Obama administration introduced the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a nationwide initiative that challenged the mayors of major cities including Baltimore to work with government and nonprofit agencies to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

It didn't reach the goal. As of last January, Baltimore's homeless population measured more than 2,700, including about 330 veterans.While 45 veterans per month were finding permanent housing, 40 more were becoming homeless.

On the positive side, Dhanraj says, the program helped improve communication among agencies, and boosted their capacity to identify and track the homeless.

"The initiative promoted much better practices, and that's significant," Dhanraj says.

Jeffery Kendrick, the Air Force veteran who serves as MCVET's executive director, says numbers don't tell the whole story.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversaw the challenge, advocates a "housing-first" strategy — that is, its first priority is to get homeless veterans into permanent housing, whatever their condition.

MCVET, Kendrick says, has always believed in the opposite approach: first, analyze and treat whatever conditions underlie a veteran's homelessness; then require the veteran — or "student" — to progress through several major phases, demonstrating commitment and increasing personal responsibility at each stage.

During the final phase — known as "SRO," for "single-room occupancy" — about 70 of the roughly 200 residents live in private apartments while commuting to jobs they've obtained through MCVET'S robust employment program.

"By that time, we are confident that these men and women have the skills and the resources to maintain that life of stability," Kendrick says. "We see homelessness as something you can't fix in a month or two."

The approach, which is based on a military model that includes a zero-tolerance policy toward drugs, seems to work. Of the 10,000 men and women MCVET has housed, more than 70 percent have met its definition of success: Remaining employed for two years after release while living with family or at another permanent address.

The organization is so committed to the approach that its board voted to keep it this year even after HUD told them the federal government would stop providing an annual $1.36 million in funding — 40 percent of its $3.4 million budget — if it didn't switch to "housing first."

"We're scrambling to raise the money, but we decided to stick with the approach we've seen succeeding from the beginning," Kendrick says.

MCVET couldn't get by without thousands of hours of service from its dozens of 100 volunteers, Kendrick says, men and women who staff full-time jobs, teach courses or make donations.

One such helper is Joe Lancaster, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Cockeysville.

For the past five years, Lancaster, the director of veterans services for Elks Lodge 469 in Towson, has taken up to 70 residents to an Orioles game.

The O's provide the tickets; the Elks give the veterans spending money.

MCVET supplies the fans — and there's no shortage of those in its current population of 183 men and 17 women.

One is Charleatha Cherry, 56, a mother of two from Baltimore who served in the Army in 1983.

Cherry says she lost her children in a dispute with an abusive partner, got involved in drugs and ended up doing two stretches in prison for a variety of offenses, including burglary.

After months of living in the street, she says, she got "tired of being beat down" and went to MCVET the day after Veterans Day 2013.

Working to suppress a lifelong "rebellious streak," she finished the organization's month-long "emergency shelter" phase, a 42-day stage that allows for more freedom, graduated to SRO — and made such an impression she became one of the first students ever hired as permanent staff.

Last weekend, she sat with Lancaster and about 50 in the upper deck at Camden Yards and gazed down on a close contest between the O's and the New York Yankees.

"My life right now is awesome," she said. "I'm not feeling sorry for myself or trying to blame others for my problems. It hasn't been easy, but I've learned how to live again."

A few rows away, 53-year-old Edward Allen, an Army veteran who served in Germany, sat in a spot of sunshine, munching from a bag of cheese curls.

After returning to the States at 21, he missed the structure of military life, and struggled with the memory of a fellow soldier who had committed suicide.

He said he slid into a life of drug and alcohol abuse.

Allen ended up living in the streets of his hometown of Richmond, Va., where "getting high was the center of my world."

In 16 months at MCVET, he has conquered the boot-camp phases, entered the SRO stage and now works as a floor technician at a Veterans Administration hospital, a job that allows him to save money and plan for the future.

"If you'd have asked me to a baseball game when I was using, it wouldn't have crossed my mind to say yes," Allen said. "Now I understand what it means to enjoy the experiences normal people do. I'm reaping the benefits of not being on drugs."

Army veteran Tanya Anderson, 55, of Brooklyn, N.Y, sat a few rows above. She attracted jeers from her friends while cheering for the Yankees.

For a time, she said, was so effective at counseling drug users that she worked full-time for Phoenix House in New York. But she also battled addiction, she said, and what she calls a chronic inability to plan.

Last year she ended up without a home. She lived with a succession of friends, before deciding to get help.

Like any resident, she may stay until she and her caseworker agree she's ready to leave. (The average stay is 15 months.)

That won't happen, she said, until she completes her bachelor's degree in social work at a local college, and later her master's degree.

MCVET will fund the whole program.

"I'll have a chance to market my expertise," she said. "It's a rare opportunity."

As the Orioles rallied in the eighth, Newman stood and cheered. He might have been celebrating his own progress.

During his first week at MCVET, he said, a psychiatrist told him he had suffered from major clinical depression for years without realizing it.

He'd turned to drinking — and later heroin — to kill the pain.

Now on a proper course of treatment, he said he feels little desire to return to his old ways.

It's not always fun, Newman said, to keep up with the discipline of his new life. But he's thankful for the chance to get perspective on his past and develop realistic plans for the future.

"It's a chance to turn things around," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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