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Veterans return to the streets to reach the homeless

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 6:48 p.m.

CONCORD, Mass. — Not far from where the Boston Massacre helped sow the seeds for the Revolutionary War, David Dyer points toward the underpass where he'd score crack cocaine by day and the train depot where he'd sleep some nights.

Now, he has a family, a home and a job — helping homeless veterans get off the streets, as he did.

Dyer is part of a team of veterans, some formerly homeless themselves, that the state of Massachusetts has hired to get veterans off the streets in the Boston area. Typically, they spend one day a week roaming the city's storefronts, alleys and shelters, which is what he was doing one recent morning outside Boston's South Station. “I guess you could call this my home for about a month,” he reminisced.

The rest of the week is spent making sure those who have found housing are staying the course. The Veterans Affairs Department, which funds the effort, is considering doubling the size of the team in the coming year.

President Obama's administration has pledged to eliminate homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015. And while the rate has been dropping, time is running short.

So communities such as Boston are aggressively hitting the streets with offers of housing, treatment and hope. Using formerly homeless veterans such as Dyer and team leader Christopher Doyle helps them make inroads with a community that often is distrustful of people who haven't experienced what they've been through.

“When they say, ‘Oh, you don't know what I'm talking about,' I can say, ‘Yeah, I do, because I was there myself,' ” said Doyle, who at one point lived in a VA homeless shelter with about 180 other veterans before landing a job with the state.

James Harrington appears to be one of the program's success stories.

Harrington estimates that he was homeless for nearly a dozen years. At first, he said, he lived in vacant apartment complexes that were under construction. Then he spent most of his nights at Logan International Airport.

He arrived at his new one-bedroom apartment in February with nothing but his door keys and a backpack.

It took him about a month to get used to the feeling that he could stay — if he wanted to.

“You're so used to living so many years in someone else's domain,” said Harrington, 66, an Army veteran who served stateside during the Vietnam War. “There was this expectation that someone's going to be coming through the door because they really own the place that you're in.”

Harrington takes great pride in turning his new apartment into a home. He found a couple of Ethan Allan end tables that neighbors were going to throw away. Carly Brown, a VA social worker, drove him to a local furniture bank where he picked out a sofa and a bed. And Doyle chipped in as well, giving him an RCA television. Now just look at the place, Harrington beams.

“Where are you going to find something better than this?” said Harrington. “You're not.”

A voucher from the federal government pays $981 of the veteran's monthly rent. He uses his Social Security and a VA pension to pay $221 himself.

Doyle checks on him weekly to make sure he's OK.

“I sometimes just talk to him about the last movie he watched,” Doyle said. “It's to show I have an interest in his life.”

Doyle said he believes that regular visits from a fellow veteran make it harder for his clients to give up and go back to their old life.

“It's easy to put someone into an apartment, but it's not as easy to keep them in one,” Doyle said. “A lot of these guys do have mental health issues or substances abuse issues. Sometimes, that's the reason they do the right thing because they know I'm going to come see them.”

The federal government estimates that the homeless rate among veterans has dropped by about 25 percent in the past three years, but nearly 58,000 veterans remain on the streets or in temporary shelters on any given night.

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