Aiming to help homeless veterans get lives in order Shelter to offer room, services to over 300 VETERANS DAY 1994

November 12, 1994|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

Calvin King has been homeless since July. The first seven days he slept on benches outside buildings downtown. He feigned serious illness so he could sleep in an emergency room. He did get a job last month as a night watchman, but pretended to be asleep on the job so he would get fired. He was afraid he would lose his shelter bed if he wasn't there to sleep in it.

There are probably other stories similar to Mr. King's among the 3,850 military veterans who are homeless in Maryland, 1,170 of them in Baltimore. For them, a new homeless center, which chose Veterans Day to open its doors for public inspection, hopes to offer more than just a place to sleep.

Mr. King wants to be one of the shelter's first residents. "When I want something, I normally get it," he said.

Located in three old buildings on North High Street whose past lives include serving as an orphanage and as a warehouse for Sweetheart Cup Co., the shelter will house more than 300 homeless veterans after renovations are completed next year.

One floor of the center is ready and it will accept its first 20 residents within two weeks, after the city certifies it as habitable.

But the competition for the veterans center's beds will be fierce. There are already about 50 applications for the 20 spots.

"We want the first 20 to serve as the cadre who will help the veterans who come later as we open up more space," said Chuck Williams, executive director of Maryland Homeless Veterans Inc., the agency that will run the shelter for the city.

"We've got to decide which 20 will be the best ones to start off with," Mr. Williams said.

Dennis F. Shaw, director of operations for Maryland Homeless Veterans, said the center will be run as though residents are still in the military. When the entire facility is open, 40 men -- the same number as in an infantry platoon -- will be assigned to each floor. And the platoons will be divided into 10-man squads with squad leaders.

"A squad will know when it's their week for kitchen duty or laundry duty," Mr. Shaw said.

"We won't have reveille, but they will be required to get up because they will have chores to do," Mr. Williams said.

"We will have lights-out time, study time, time to get up; the maintenance of this building will be part of their jobs," Mr. Williams added.

Mr. King, 49, who grew up in East Baltimore, spent 4 1/2 years in the Air Force before being discharged in 1968 after being diagnosed as suffering from depression. He says he would enjoy being subjected to the military regimen again.

"I love that," Mr. King said. "That psychiatrist, what he did --

saying I was sick -- was take away my life. Everything I had planned for myself had to do with a career in the military."

Robert Bunting, 38, a Navy veteran from Annapolis, is living in the Nehemiah House shelter in Essex. He said living by military rules would be better for him, too. "I spent eight years living in a military environment. It's the structure that I need."

The center is expected to accommodate 80 more residents by late next month. Eventually, it will include 100 emergency beds for people who need a place to stay overnight, 120 beds for veterans in the 15-month transitional residence program and about 80 single-occupancy rooms for veterans in a long-term housing program.

The center is patterned after the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Boston, which opened in 1990 and helps residents find jobs as well. But Mr. Shaw said the Baltimore facility will have more of an emphasis on each veteran's long-range goals, rather than immediate employment.

He said the Baltimore shelter plans to have offices for Veterans Administration entitlement counselors, alcohol and drug counselors who are on the center's staff and counselors from the city's Department of Social Services.

"We will take care of their needs," Mr. Williams said. "We will look at their [military] discharge. If it was dishonorable, we will see about getting it upgraded. If they need their GED, that will be done. We will look at each according to his needs."

Robert V. Hess, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, said the center still has unfulfilled needs despite receiving $15.5 million in city, state and federal grants to renovate the buildings and to operate the center's programs.

"Our food budget is only $1.36 a day per veteran," Mr. Hess said. "Even state prisoners get $2 a day to eat on. We're going to be asking the public to donate their time, food and money to help make this place work."

Several DAV and Veterans of Foreign Wars chapters made donations after yesterday's dedication ceremonies at the center, which were attended by about 200 people, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes and U.S. Rep. Benjamin Cardin.

"This is a day we have been waiting on for a long time," Mr. Schmoke said. "Twenty percent of the homeless people in the city are veterans. It has been our dream that we can do something to break the cycle and instill some hope into their lives."

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