Center brings lost vets back into ranks of society

October 27, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OUTSIDE, in the 300 block of N. High St., half a block from Gay Street, the neighborhood's a raw urban cliche: crumbling sidewalks, trash clotting in gutters, and people moving quickly enough to outrun any sudden, unanticipated shadows.

Inside, though, it feels like sanctuary.

It's a five-story building where military veterans come for a second chance, after they've been discharged, after they've lost their way as civilians, after the bottom has dropped out of their lives.

In its four years of existence, more than 1,100 veterans have landed here, at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training Inc. Some arrive with plastic bags full of belongings, the residue of living on the street. Many need psychological counseling. Almost all arrive with histories of substance abuse.

And, over the course of two years, or less, they find their way back out: most of them to steady jobs, to real homes, to lives where a horizon's more distant than the end of a needle.

"What are you up to?" one gray-bearded veteran was asked the other day, as he pushed a broom across his dormitory room.

"Learning to crawl," he chuckled.

He said he'd been a pathfinder in Vietnam - "first one in, last one out." He came home, started to make it big, couldn't handle it when the dollar tumbled and things got rough.

"I had it all," he said. "A house that cost $172,000, a boat in the bay. Then the economy went bad, and I got into drugs. I ran from my responsibilities." He recites this as though he's run through it before, once or a thousand times, a postwar mantra.

"I'm learning to crawl," he said again.

Actually, the crawling's begun by the time men and women find their way here. Anyone arriving with active drug or alcohol problems is sent to an area hospital to clean out. When they come back, they're given a bed, three meals a day, training and education. They can stay up to two years, or until they've got a job paying $19,000 a year. Until then, they've found an environment combining military discipline with the freedom to find their vanished former selves.

"We give them back a sense of discipline that they learned in the service and lost back on the streets," said retired Army Col. Charles Williams, the center's executive director. "We think it translates as trust and security."

It starts with their first home inside the center: a barracks-type setting with camouflage-type blankets on bunk beds, all neatly made. In a dining hall, where military flags hang on the walls, residents cook all meals and handle all cleanup.

"It's that way throughout the building," said Chester Silverman, the center's vice president. "They do their own work here, plumbing, electrical work, painting, laying down new floors. These are skilled people. And they learn more skills while they're here."

"We have high expectations," said case manager Rose Washington. "The way they dress, they way they behave. We don't want them to look homeless, or feel homeless. We want them to learn to take care of themselves."

She said this on a tour of the facilities: not only dormitories and the dining area, but learning centers with computers, meeting rooms for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, areas for job counseling and tutoring, and a recreation area where several guys are shooting a little pool with much good nature but little noticeable accuracy.

"Too much media pressure," laughed a guy who misses an easy bank shot.

He's joking. After life on the streets, the pressure's diminished by light years here. Standards are high - both the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington and Andrew M. Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have honored the center as a role model - but residents have time to stabilize their lives, and help doing it.

But the center is fighting for time, and for help. A private, nonprofit operation originally funded by several federal agencies, the center ultimately faces the end of much of its original government funding and must find private, corporate donors to continue operating.

"That's the message we've got to get out," said Silverman.

"The figures we've seen," said center spokeswoman Shawn Chalk, "say one out of three homeless people across the country is a veteran. In the city of Baltimore, they estimate one out of every five. If that's the case, then there are about 8,000 homeless veterans in Baltimore."

Some of them will make their way here to North High Street, where the neighborhood's a reflection of much that they've lived through: rough streets, and troubled souls finally outrunning the shadows in their lives in a place that feels like a sanctuary.

Pub Date: 10/25/98

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