Dorm one of first to offer permanent shelter to vets East Baltimore complex to grant long-term housing to homeless veterans

August 29, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In the 1970s, Thomas Cameron and his mates spent much of their time longing for when their Navy submarine docked for liberty after 30-day cruises 1,200 feet deep.

"When they said liberty, it was time to do damage," said the 44-year-old communications specialist and father of four. "We partied hard, it was a way of life."

Those weekend shore leaves of guzzling booze and snorting cocaine left Cameron with a habit that eventually cost him his wife, children and 17-year Washington Navy Yard job. Addicted, the New Jersey native became homeless on Baltimore streets.

Wearing a suit and tie, Cameron stood yesterday as national, state and city officials added one of the nation's first permanent dormitories for homeless veterans to the emergency and transitional shelter at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in East Baltimore.

Federal veterans officials estimate that 250,000 homeless veterans huddle in doorways, shuffle in food lines and sleep under highway overpasses across the nation each night.

The one-room apartments at 301 N. High St. are expected to give 80 of Baltimore's estimated 700 homeless veterans -- including Cameron -- homes for good. On Tuesday, a second 33-apartment building for homeless veterans known as Micah House will open at 5207 York Road.

"Once upon a time, we knew what it was like to get up and do what we needed to do," Cameron said of his military service after yesterday's dedication. "I'm grounded here, I have support here, it's a brotherhood."

Homelessness among veterans is getting increasing national attention after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that one of every three of the nation's 600,000 homeless adults served in the military.

Centers for homeless veterans have sprouted across the nation since the U.S. Census in 1990. Among them are a Phoenix City, Ala., site, where a church group targets veterans, and a Boston facility after which the Baltimore site is modeled.

National officials view the Baltimore center as unique because of its hierarchy of former military officers who serve as directors. Since 1994, when the city and state purchased the property for veterans housing, retired Col. Charles Williams has served as director.

"Homelessness has been linked to military service since wars began," Williams said. "They are displaced people who are not ready to deal with the horrors of war" when they return home.

Residents of the center must be veterans and show military discharge papers or a VA medical card for admittance. In addition to shelter, the center will provide school guidance and job training.

James Howard, 50, spent 19 months in the program and will soon serve as the weekend property manager. Howard, who is attending Baltimore City College, was an addict for 25 years.

"No matter what my past has been," Howard told about 100 dedication guests, "it doesn't have to be my future."

Center leaders thanked Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III for helping to steer the project through government bureaucracy. Also on hand were members of the Enterprise Foundation, a group of developers based in Baltimore who build low-income housing.

The $1.6 million four-story dormitory gained financial support from Veterans Affairs, which last year contributed $2 million to the Baltimore project. The department made $5 million available nationwide for such centers.

John Henson, deputy assistant secretary for the department, traveled from Washington yesterday to tell those attending that veterans "deserve more than a pat on the back and a thank you. And this is more than a thank you," Henson said. "This is a welcome home."

Pub Date: 8/29/98

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