By James P. McLaughlin
Jeffery Kendrick conducts himself like a man who spent 23 years in the military. He speaks slowly and clearly with a sense of authority; he walks through the halls of an old Dixie Cup factory turned veteran homeless shelter in Baltimore, Maryland like a commanding officer. Those passing him in the hall address him as “sir.”
Kendrick, the executive director of the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, or MCVET, says the organization, which provides services to help combat veteran homelessness, sticks to what they know works: military structure.
“We have platoon leaders and a building First Sergeant, and everyone here is addressed by “sir” and “ma’m,” he says. “We follow a model of decorum in terms of how we address, how we dress, how we talk to each other, in terms of when we get up in the morning –– everyone is up at 5:30 –– the building has to be put into inspection order. So we find the military structure and the military guidelines really work for veterans because they come in and gravitate to it, because at one time all of us did that before. We know that environment, and we know how well it works.”
From the outside, aside from the large white sign hanging over the loading dock reading MCVET in faded red lettering, the building looks like another old factory that has been abandoned among the deteriorating buildings of Baltimore. However, inside, the facility has the feel of a military company barracks. It’s extremely clean –– clean in the way that only military personnel know how to clean. The floors are waxed and spotless, the baseboards show no sign of dust, and the walls are freshly painted.
MCVET is a two-year program that addresses physical, mental, and substance abuse issues, provides education and job training for homeless veterans that will give veterans the opportunity to have a successful life and stay off the street, Kendrick says. The goal at the end of the program is to have an employed and educated veteran living in his or her own home.
“It’s not as simple as taking a man or woman off the street and just saying, ‘Okay, tomorrow we’re going to send you to work,’” he says. “Those things are worked on through gradual phases of the program. MCVET’s goal is very simple: let us address the problem that was encountered before you actually came through our doors. Once it’s well addressed, taken care of very well, then here is the key, here is your own place, and then you are less likely to go back on the street.”
The emergency housing unit, which serves as a 72 day introduction into the program, looks and feels like a military squad-bay found on military bases from Parris Island, South Carolina, to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Michigan and Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Rows of bunk beds, or racks, fill the room, each with meticulously made beds with perfect hospital corners. Personal belongings are neatly stacked at the foot of the racks or secured in personal lockers lining the perimeter of the room.
“Its just like being back in basic training,” Kendrick says.
Kendrick first learned of the homeless veteran epidemic, which he calls a “scourge on this country,” 13 years ago when he started working at MCVET. He says people don’t become homeless by choice. There are many factors that lead to homelessness. For veterans issues such as post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual trauma, battlefield trauma, mental abuse, and physical abuse are contributing factors to ending up on the streets.
“I tend to think sometimes that if some of those factors had affected me during my military career, I could have very easily ended up homeless also,” says Kendrick, a retired Air Force veteran.
The center has served over 10,000 veterans in 21 years and has a 70 percent success rate. Despite the programs success, Kendrick says veterans are constantly being tempted to return to the streets, whether because of drug addiction or other causes.
“Sometimes the call of the street will win,” he says with a shake of his head. “When you lose that veteran and then a month later you see that guy back on the corner with that sign, ah that just tears you up.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of his job, Kendrick adds, is when he sees veterans returning with their friends and family to visit and showing clear signs of success.
“I don’t think a lot of people have jobs where they can say, ‘I’ve done something for the betterment of my fellow man,’” he says. “This is actually a vocation where we see it every day. The fact that you can have people just come back and say thank you means a lot to us. Being a veteran, it does my heart good to know that I’m helping fellow veterans.”