Somerville, MA, July 29 – “It was really hard to come back,” the veteran explained, quietly. “My whole family was telling me that I was someone different, someone that basically they didn’t recognize. You come back and you just try to live a normal life, and it’s not really possible to do that.”
Military veterans face terrible odds when they return from conflict. A recent study from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) noted that 53 percent of those polled say they have a mental health injury.
Unemployment for vets is double normal rates, and on any given night around 58,000 veterans are without a place to sleep, while 1.4 million more are at risk of becoming homeless due to poverty and lack of support, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
But Eddie Cowen, 27, is one of the lucky ones. He beat the odds.
The Fall River native, who served tours in Bahrain and Iraq, credits a new veterans facility near Teele Square.
“I came from a bad, bad place,” Cowen said, admitting he had had a brush with the law.
Today, Cowen lives at the Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center (MBVC), at the corner of North Street and Broadway. The transitional housing facility run by the non-profit Volunteers of America opened in January 2014. It has 29 rooms — 22 temporary and seven permanent — as well as a shared kitchen, common rooms and a job placement service. Built and partially funded by the VOA, the MBVC also gets funding from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (VA)
But while Somerville’s resident veterans face many issues – dealing with the complicated VA claim system chief among them – the city’s Director of Veterans’ Services Jay Weaver says that when the center opened, none of them needed a spot.
Somerville is home to around 4,000 veterans according to the U.S. Census, but a January 29, 2014 count identified just one “truly” homeless veteran.
“We are incredibly fortunate here in Somerville,” Weaver explained. “I don’t know whether we can take some of the credit for having been so aggressive in helping to get people squared away in our advocacy … but we essentially don’t have a veterans’ homelessness problem here.”
Nevertheless, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone recently pledged the city was joining a national challenge issued by the Obama administration to end veteran homelessness by 2016, stating in a press release that even “one homeless veteran is too many.”
MBVC case manager Robert Griffiths agreed, but he also noted that the definition of homeless needs to be expanded to truly understand American veterans’ difficulties.
“It’s not the typical veteran that you see under the bridge, holding the sign, anymore,” Griffiths said. “We have a lot of young vets coming back. They’re doing a lot of couch-surfing, they’re living with their parents, they’re living with friends. Technically, they’re homeless.”
The Somerville facility is playing an important role for its residents already, Griffiths explained.
During a four-to-six-month transitional program at the center, veterans of all ages get various forms of assistance, including group and individual therapy, career and housing counseling and assistance, and life skills training. Area veterans can also benefit without living on the premises — the in-house employment assistance office serves all of Essex and Middlesex counties.
Cowen said he first heard about the MBVC through his parole officer, who suggested that he go in for an interview in February. He moved in two weeks later.
“I’ve been a bunch of places and it’s the nicest place in the state,” he said. “I know my situation, you know what I mean? I know my situation. But it’s still nice to come home to someplace nice, a cool building that doesn’t look like it was meant to be a war bunker.”
Cowen has one room where he lives with his seven-month-old lab mix Evander, whom he is training to be a service dog. Even though Evander’s crate takes up most of the room’s floor space – along with his biscuits, toys, and bowls – Cowen says he and the dog usually share the twin bed at night. But aside from one baseball cap, and his own dog tags tucked under his shirt, there no evident signs Cowen was in the Marines.
“When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan, that’s like a completely different world,” Cowen explained. “I think people are only supposed to see so much and know so much, and then you learn more than that and you see more than that. People, especially guys, come back from that stuff and they have issues, but they also feel like they have to be the toughest guy on the block, so they don’t ask for help, they don’t look for help. I didn’t look for help. I didn’t know there was help.”
Five months later, Cowen now works at the MBVC front desk most days. He’s captain of the center’s softball team. And he’s pursuing a business degree through online courses. (Despite the mostly bleak results reported in the IAVA survey, the study did have good news. Sixty-two percent of respondents indicated that they have used the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill.)
“I’m getting pretty good grades,” Cowen reported. “I like it. I thought I would be horrible at school. I was horrible at high school, but I’m better at it now. I want it more.”
What else does Cowen want?
“I’d like to get out of here, be on my own, get [Evander] his own bed in an apartment. That’d be great. But I think I’m all right for now. I’m in the right place, for sure.”
You can also read this story in the Somerville Journal.
Somerville Neighborhood News is a production of Somerville Community Access Television, made by professional journalists, volunteers and staff. The half-hour news show has as its mission to provide a lively, informative newscast focusing on the events, issues and information impacting Somerville residents.