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Harvard Street Health Center program centers dignity for Boston-area veterans

Avery Bleichfeld
Harvard Street Health Center program centers dignity for Boston-area veterans
Kathryn King, program director of the Veterans Outreach Center at the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, poses for a picture at the center’s offices in Dorchester, June 27. The center, which King took over leadership of in February, offers hot meals, computer classes and other programing and is aiming to become a one-stop-shop for local veterans and the services they need. BANNER PHOTO

For eight years, Kathryn King served in the U.S. Army Reserves. Now, based out of a stout brick building on Blue Hill Avenue, she has a new mission, focused on supporting and affirming the dignity of veterans in the Boston area.

There, King serves as program director of the Veterans Outreach Center at Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, a role she took up in February, where she is attempting to revitalize the program to expand offerings and better support local veterans.

“We just want to make sure that there’s an abundance of resources, whether we can provide them directly or refer them out to another agency,” King said.

The program — currently operated by King and Assiatu Bah, the center’s outreach coordinator — runs classes, gives out supplies, offers connections to medical services, and serves hot meals and shelf-stable staples to the veterans who attend — though some of those offerings are on hold pending ongoing construction at the center.

Through all the work runs a single thread that King summed up with the word “dignity.”

“We know their faces. We know their names,” she said. “They’re not just somebody that’s in our database. It’s a human connection.”

Charles Murphy, president and CEO of Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, said with King in charge, the programming is gaining more traction.

“Under her leadership, it really has started to take root, and it’s just a very open and welcoming place, where we’ve got any number of vets coming down every day just to shoot the breeze, have coffee, whatever the case may be, or attend the computer classes or the other programming that we’re offering,” he said.

Now, the veterans center is in a moment of transition as King leads works to revamp and revitalize it.

Some of those efforts are small. Since joining, she has changed the lunch and breakfast menu and opted not to restock the “oodles” of instant ramen noodles she inherited as director, to make food offerings healthier.

Partnerships with groups like the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) help clients maneuver a complex system and get access to veterans benefits they may not have known they could get. Through a collaboration with Home Base, a veterans organization founded by the Red Sox and Massachusetts General Hospital, the outreach center connects clients with comprehensive mental health evaluation services.

Other changes the center is pursuing are heftier. A nearly $60,000 grant from the state’s Executive Office of Veterans Services is funding ongoing construction in the center’s offices to convert two storage rooms into multipurpose spaces that King said will allow the center to offer programs like art therapy or more tailored individual therapy for clients.

The center is also looking to expand to support veterans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. A grant it applied for from the executive office could bring in more than $1 million to hire a housing manager and a housing specialist. King called that effort “a critical concern” for the center.

Kathryn King BANNER PHOTO

“We do have homeless vets that come here that are either staying at [the New England Center and Home for Veterans] or Pine Street Inn,” King said. “They could be staying with family, or they’re just in a displaced situation, and it would mean a lot to us to be able to assist them with finding someplace to live, or sustaining where they’re living, not just to be a Band-Aid approach to it.”

The center is also eyeing bigger steps toward supporting homeless veterans by building and managing veteran housing in connection with the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, but Murphy said that work is in the early stages, and they have yet to take substantive steps toward those goals.

Overall, he said, he hopes the changes the center is pursuing could bring more awareness about the program and introduce more veterans to the services offered.

“It’s just more opportunity,” Murphy said. “The busier we get, the more prominent we become. It’s just more folks who are coming in, getting services that they otherwise wouldn’t get.”

And that work seems to be paying off. In May, the center saw 94 veterans in and using its services. King said that number has gradually been rising since early this year — though the construction, which forced the center to switch from drop-in services to services by appointment, meant the numbers fell in June.

The new work joins other existing programming, like a Boots 2 Technology course offered through a contract with Roxbury-based Timothy Smith Network. The six-week course offers veterans a chance to learn computer skills and provides them with a free laptop at the completion of the course in an attempt to close digital divides.

A computer lab offers space for clients to access the internet and apply for jobs or make Zoom calls. A storage closet packed full of suits and ties and blouses is the Tailored for Success Mini Boutique, where veterans can take home professional clothing for free. Another room holds a stash of spare toiletries in buckets and boxes for clients in need of them. When the center isn’t under construction, a little kitchen serves hot breakfasts and lunches for veterans twice a week, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

As part of the Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, the outreach center can also refer its veterans to other physical and mental health services — something King said can be key for clients who are not part of the Veteran Administration’s health care system.

The same building that houses the veterans center also is the home of the health center’s behavioral health services, and about half a mile down Blue Hill Avenue, at its main facility, veterans served by the outreach center can access the health center’s family medicine and adult clinics.

“If they need a primary care doctor, we have that,” King said. “If they need dental or vision, on our intake sheet those are areas that they can check off.”

But, at its core, the outreach center is focused on providing veterans a place to get together with people with a shared experience.

“It’s actually been a lifeline for some folks dealing with depression, anxiety, PTSD, unfortunately some suicidal ideations,” King said. “Being in a community that understands them is very critical.”

Murphy said that the goal of creating a common space for veterans to get together has been at the crux of the center’s work since its founding in 2016.

“That was sort of the primary driver in the day,” he said. “Just a spot for the Dorchester, Mattapan, Roxbury area for vets who otherwise wouldn’t have a place to go. It seems to be working out.”

Disabled American Veterans, Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center, health, Home Base, veterans, Veterans Outreach Center