This article was made possible through a collaboration with Habitat PLUS and Dick George, President, 101st Airborne Division Association, Massachusetts Home Base Chapter.
By Margaret Leahy
On a quiet street just up the hill from a bustling city center sits a stately Victorian home. Like so many New England originals, the building is impressive in its period detail, hedges trimmed,and windows brightened by patriotic bunting. It could easily pass for a museum or library, or perhaps the temporary abode of a visiting dignitary. You wouldn’t know to look at it, but inside, lives are being changed for the better.
Privately founded in 1989 by Susan Campbell and Bernadette Forti in Lynn, Massachusetts, Habitat P.L.U.S., Inc. (HP, for short) obtained non-profit status (501C3) in 1995. HP is also a federally licensed Veterans Administration Community Residential Care (VA CRC) facility unlike any other. HPserves a very specific but incredibly vulnerable demographic: veterans with psychiatric disabilities, who would otherwise be homeless.
With six single bedrooms and two double-occupancy rooms, the Main Residence, or group home, is set up to feel like a bed and breakfast, complete with a comfortable living room and dine-in kitchen. HP does not provide treatment, but rather supported living. Veterans receive treatment through the VA Out Patient Center in Boston. What HP does provideare three square meals a day, a vegetable garden for residents to tend, a huge Christmas tree and celebrations at holiday time, Red Sox pennants and diagrams of motorcycles on the walls. In short, it is their home.
In 1989, Campbell and Forti scraped together what money they could and purchased a Victorian house in Lynn, a city north of Boston with a hardscrabble reputation. They did much of the renovation themselves, sometimes living on the property while tearing up floors and papering walls. The Main Residence now boasts period-appropriate wallpaper, a chandelier, and nary a spot of dust nor peeling paint. In 2017, through various grants and Campbell and Forti’s efforts, HP made $85,000 in repairs to the group home site, including a new roof, soffits, gutters and exterior paint. To see the space today with all its amenities, one would think they have it all. But even now, funding is a primary challenge for Habitat P.L.U.S.
“We have done fundraising events, cook-offs, and raffles,” says Forti. “However, they are time-consuming, and when you back out all the staff time pulling them together it often brings meager results. You have to remember we are basically running a hotel, restaurant and social service center 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 14 seriously mentally ill people.” With only three full-time and four part-time staff members there is very little time for fundraising.
Veterans of HP suffer from a range of psychiatric conditions that include schizophrenia,
bipolar disorder, major depression, anxiety, and PTSD, not to mention physical challenges due to injury, past substance abuse, improper medical care or malnutrition. Nearly seventy percent of the veterans of HP carry a dual diagnosis, meaning they suffer from mental illness or trauma, as well as a history of some form of substance abuse. Many of the men living in the Habitat P.L.U.S. house had lost family, community, and a safe place to live. Most have had experiences in other residential settings where conditions can range from sub-par to horrific; in many instances, it’s enough to send a body back onto the street. “We want to provide the guys living under bridges and in the woods the opportunity for a whole new living experience,” says Forti.
Two live-in direct care staff members cook and provide support in the areas of Activities of Daily Living (ADL) skills management, as well as medication supervision. Live-in cleaning and maintenance staff ensure a spotless home and routine maintenance. “The men are not expected to keep house,” says Forti. “We instruct our staff ‘...to treat these men with dignity and respect.’ The veterans are here to be served by us, because they served for us.”
Campbell and Forti acknowledge that while not every veteran who lives at HP was on the front lines, they all deserve the utmost respect. “I don’t care if they were in Kentucky peeling potatoes,” she says. “The minute they signed their name on that line, they became GIs or Government Issue and the property of the American people, willing to put themselves in harm’s way for all of us.”
In addition to the group home, there is a more independent housing option, the Co-operative Apartment Program (CAP) next door, where Veterans with higher skill potential live in one- or two-bedroom apartments, shopping, cooking and cleaning for themselves. HP is extremely unique in that it is the only CRC home that offers this continuum of care. Staff still provide these Veterans with support seven days a week to make sure the men are eating well and keeping their spaces clean and tidy.
The Co-operative Apartment site next door has also come a long way from its start as a demolition-bound fixer-upper, but it too needs repairs, including a new roof.
HP Veterans attend outside counseling and day programs during the week and return home in the afternoon for dinner and a safe place to sleep. Though the men are expected to take daily showers, shave, and manage their own laundry, the staff is sure to help in any way they can. “Anyone who meets our guys knows they are well taken care of and that our program is working,” says Campbell.
There is a strictly-enforced rule of sobriety in the house, as well as expected medical compliance should illness or injury occur. Perhaps most crucial to the men’s well-being is the camaraderie they build, borne out of a shared military experience.
Campbell and Forti have found that the population they serve requires consistent structure and support to function and thrive. Without these, they risk falling into the revolving door of rehospitalization, substance abuse and homelessness. This emphasis on structure and routine is reminiscent of military service.
“Routine activities that you and I take for granted can prove challenging for psychiatrically disabled Veterans,” says Forti.“What we do is help to manage Activities of Daily Living (ADL) skills.” Though sobriety and medical compliance are golden rules, the guidelines at HP are set in place to encourage an environment of personal accountability. “Meeting expectations keeps you accountable and allows you to have a certain amount of control over your life,” Campbell says.
“The way the men are today is a long way from how they were on day one,” says Forti, her face darkening. “When we began we were struck by the level of shame the Veterans felt in having a mental illness. We asked them if they thought less of someone with a cold who sneezed and coughed, which of course they didn’t, and then pointed out that they have no reason to feel shame for the symptoms of their illness either.”
“These guys were helicopter pilots, EMTs and sharp shooters. They’re from multiple branches of the service,” says Campbell, “but when schizophrenia hits, they are embarrassed and filled with shame.”
“Because schizophrenia has its onset in the late teens to mid-twenties, often striking while in the service, it can take the Veterans years to come to terms with it and accept that they need treatment and support,” Forti explains. “They may get to Habitat when they are in their forties, and they’ve been in and out of hospitals for twenty years.” By the time they get to Habitat P.L.U.S., and later stabilize, their families are filled with gratitude, as evidenced by the many thank you notes from family members pinned to the bulletin board by Susan’s desk.
Forti and Campbell met while working at an agency serving adults with developmental disabilities. They found common ground in their frustration with the stigma attached to mental health, as well as the neglect many American Veterans experienced following their return from service.
Campbell’s family had been profoundly shaken by the death of her cousin Stanley J. Egan, who died at age 20 from injuries sustained while volunteering for a reconnaissance mission in the Vietnam War. From a young age, she harbored a place in her heart for all service members who returned home to a climate of far less respect than they deserved, especially those of the Vietnam era. Pre-existing mental illness or combat trauma (physical or otherwise) can push these Veterans even further to the fringes of society. Disaster often strikes this vulnerable population in the form of decompensation, homelessness, substance abuse, and all too often, suicide.
Campbell and Forti are grateful for community partnerships and hope to develop more. The General Electric (GE) Veteran’s Council, the GE Employee’s Good Neighbor Fund and GE corporate have been partnering with HP to make needed repairs and improvements for the veterans’ home over the past six years. GE provides HP with grants and sponsors a two-day volunteer weekend, once a year. GE has replaced windows, rebuilt stairways and much more.
However, Campbell emphasizes that the most meaningful project was the installation of a flagpole. “The pride our Veterans felt when they raised that first flag was evident on every man’s face and they walked a little taller afterwards,” she recalls. “It represents their love of country and the price they paid in serving it. Those who have not served may not realize how important this is for them. To this day, each time a brother or first responder falls they are so proud to be able to lower the flag to half-staff in their honor.”
What began as a disparate group of disabled Veterans has grown into a family, as witnessed by Dick George, President of the 101st Airborne Division Association Massachusetts Home Base Chapter, while touring HP. As Campbell led Dick up the interior mahogany staircase, she paused at a niche.
On the niche sits an urn and a framed 8 x 10 photograph of a veteran, named Jim, who came to call HP home many years ago. Campbell explained that Jim had been the only child of a single mother, who had long ago passed, and had no other family. Jim had come to love his home so much that he asked Campbell and Forti to promise him he would never have to leave it. They kept that promise. Eleven years later Jim succumbed to cancer, and the two women placed Jim’s ashes upon the niche. Campbell told Dick, “Jim will always be home now. We seldom need to dust his urn, because as his fellow Veterans pass up and down the stairs, they often touch his urn in remembrance.”
Unlike many other residential programs, most Veterans who come to Habitat P.L.U.S. stay for a long time. The current average length of stay is twelve years and eleven months, with the longest average stay clocking in at eighteen years—these statistics are unheard-of for state funded residential programs. Veterans usually stay at Habitat for the remainder of their lives or until health issues require a more medically supported setting. With compassionate care that puts emphasis on dignity and personal accountability, Forti and Campbell have given residents a chance finally to begin to heal.
“Financially, Veterans receive service or non-service connected VA pensions and pay for their room and board, but those with non-service connected pensions cannot afford the rates set by the VA,” says Forti. “Therefore, HP subsidizes a third of the veterans who live here. If not, they would not be able to afford living here.” And as the population of the house grows, so too does the volume of workand the financial commitment. “It’s difficult to do everything that needs to be done when you’re a small grassroots organization” sighs Forti. “There just aren’t enough resources or hours in the day.”
Under the VA’s CRC, Habitat P.L.U.S. is the only veterans’ home that operates as a non-profit.
“The home is meticulously maintained, and their nutrition and food preparation practices are at restaurant level with the home’s general standards far exceeding the expectations of the CRC program,” according to the VA CRC coordinator.
At the time of Habitat’s inception, the general approach to providing services was to provide temporary or “transitional” support, a label considered more palatable to taxpayers. But what those taxes supported was nothing more than a Band-Aid approach to Veterans’ care, an ineffective revolving door of hospital admittance and discharge. In the long run, this proved more expensive and less effective for the Veteran.
From the beginning, Forti and Campbell knew instinctively that this population needed permanent supports. While they included the word “transitional” in their mission statement, in actuality they put no limits on length of stay. Twenty years later they were contacted by a representative of the then-Governor’s office, asking them to serve on a committee regarding homeless Veterans, stating that “You women seem to have figured out twenty years ago what we are just figuring out now.” It was validation for the years they spent advocating for funding permanent, rather than only temporary or transitional supports, for this population.
The women work tirelessly to provide the best living situation theycan for their Veterans, upholding their own tenets of a common sense and compassionate approach to serving Veterans with psychiatric disabilities. Campbell keeps the memory of her cousin Stanley Egan alive in her commitment to Habitat. “I think about my cousin, and what he would think of these guys,” says Campbell, remembering Stanley’s positivity and easy-going manner, even as he spoke to her on the phone all those years ago from his hospital bed overseas. “I hope he would be proud, of not just what we do, but how we do it.”
After covering acquisition, renovation and personally subsidizing operational costs for Habitat for eight years, Campbell and Forti knew they could not sustain it indefinitely without help. In 1998 they obtained partial state funding from the state legislature and funneled through the Department of Veterans’ Services. “Today our state funding accounts for only 31% of our budget,” says Campbell. With the Veterans’ contributions and other fundraising, HP must raise the remaining 69% of their budget. This is a daunting task, in addition to running the programs.
As Habitat nears its thirtieth anniversary, Campbell and Forti remain as hard-working as ever. And while the job is not without its challenges and frustrations, the women are just as committed to their residents and mission as they were on day one. It’s something like love, but maybe better expressed as devotion—an unwavering drive to preserve the dignity these men deserve.
“The guys are the best part of this job,” says Campbell. “When we get discouraged or don’t know how we’ll pay the bills, we go and sit on the back porch with the guys. After five minutes of hanging out with them, our energy is restored.” She smiles and looks at Forti. “I’m so proud of them.”
Forti beams back. “I’m so proud of them too.”