Lewiston facility gives homeless veterans a ‘hand up’

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LEWISTON — Kristopher Boyle had served his country well in Iraq, spending four years in the U.S. Army.

Three years later, the 29-year-old veteran had no job, no transportation and had seen his children one time for just a few minutes. He ended up homeless, became an addict and lost his will to live.

“I think I was trying to kill myself,” Boyle said.

An average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Instead of becoming a statistic, he reached out for help. A staff member who works with veterans at the Lewiston CareerCenter put him in touch with Veterans Inc., a new program in Lewiston that helps homeless veterans.

A veterans’ advocate helped him get therapy and other health benefits from the VA. After passing a background check, Veterans Inc. provided him with a bed and other basic needs, including job training and therapy.

“These people literally saved my life because, if not for this, I would be one of the 22, and I’m so thankful that I’m not,” Boyle said. “I’ve been given a reason to live.”

Veterans Inc. is a nonprofit based in Worcester, Mass., with the goal of ending chronic homelessness among veterans. Incorporated in 1990, it has offices and programs in all six New England states.

The facility in Lewiston, housed at the former St. Joseph’s School at 393 Main St., opened in late January with 20 private living units. Sixteen of its 20 beds are occupied.

The Home Depot provided much of the funding and manpower to convert the building from a school to a place to safely house veterans.

Veterans Inc. is careful about who it allows into its transitional facilities. All veterans must pass background checks before getting beds. The organization does not accept anyone convicted of a sex crime, arson or a violent crime.

“This is not a shelter. This is a program,” said Carolyn Cutting, regional manager for Veterans Inc. in Maine.

The program offers a three-pronged approach to providing veterans with basic needs: housing, employment and health care. Advocates work with the residents to help them regain their independence and transition into situations in which they can once again live on their own.

“We focus on a very holistic approach when it comes to helping the veteran,” Alley Smith, a universal services advocate in Lewiston, said. “We look at the whole picture: what’s going to keep them housed, what’s going to keep them stable physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Care begins with case management, in which an advocate provides one-on-one counseling and treatment, beginning with health and wellness services. Often, veterans do not realize which benefits are available to them, site coordinator Ray Michaud said.

Case management also includes job search support and training, career counseling, education, clothing and transportation.

“I’ve been given a home. I’ve been given a treatment plan,” Boyle said. “I’m currently five weeks sober. I’m getting ready to go back to school in the fall. These guys have not given me a handout. They’ve given me a hand up.”

U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, recently visited the Lewiston facility and held a pair of roundtable discussions with staff members, veterans advocates and a few of the residents to learn more about the program and issues facing veterans.

“This is — I call it priming the pump,” King said. “It’s going to help him get over that hump of homelessness.”

Homelessness among veterans is a problem across the country. Nearly 50,000 veterans were homeless in 2014, according to the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In Maine that number was 152, which was 7.3 percent lower than in 2013.

Organizations like Veterans Inc. are helping to reduce that number. But what separates it from shelters are the support services it provides in an attempt to end the cycle.

The organization says it has helped more than 55,000 veterans since opening in 1991 and says it has an 85 percent success rate in “transitioning clients out of homelessness.”

“These are not people who are here to be on welfare for the rest of their lives,” King said. “These are not people who want to do that. They are not taking advantage. Some of them have what I would call ‘war injuries.’ They need some help getting through that, but the whole idea is to help people get back on their feet.”

Help getting back on his feet is all Boyle needed. In just three weeks at Veterans Inc., he said, he regained his sense of pride and is motivated to get on with his life. Smith, his case manager, recently saw Boyle smile for the first time and now she rarely sees him without one, she said.

“Now when I look in the mirror and shave in the morning, I feel like a man again,” Boyle said. “It’s been a long time.

“I feel like the only obstacle that was in my way was me, and I am no longer an obstacle. I am a freight train on a one-way course.”

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