Veterans of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home dormitory for the homeless face uncertain future as program closure looms

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass. (Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen, The Republican/TNS)

HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) – A Vietnam-era air force veteran sits in a somewhat dated makeshift library. Not messy, exactly, but filled with dusty, slanted piles of historical novels and tomes by Tom Clancy, old editions of National Geographic, and more.

It may be more accurate to say that space has a quality of return. With his neatly groomed mullet and his Julian Edelman Patriots jersey, Ed Karczmarczyk knows he has one too.

He relied on a program at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke that also fits this bill. But the quietly run program will soon fade away to make way for a massive $400 million construction project.

While construction of a new nursing home and adult day health program is a silver lining after the soldiers’ home was hit particularly hard during the coronavirus pandemic, the project appears to have done some damage collaterals.

Karczmarczyk is one of a handful of men remaining in the facility’s 30-bed residential program, which opened for homeless veterans in 1972. The dorm essentially functions as an extension of the main house, with access for meals and other services and is a stone’s throw from the main building.

The home program is scheduled to end on March 31 to make way for the adult day health program, which is expected to serve about 150 veterans, a spokeswoman for the soldier’s home said.

“As more housing options and available outpatient services have increased in Western Massachusetts, demand for in-home services has declined over the past few years,” spokeswoman Debra Foley said, adding that a needs assessment conducted before construction had revealed a decrease in demand for the dormitory, which costs about $1.2 million a year to operate.

The home program stopped taking new admissions in March 2020 when the pandemic erupted, Foley said.

The economics of the scenario are of little comfort to Karczmarczyk.

The 67-year-old Springfield native says the scheme finally lifted him out of a life of alcoholism, failed careers and uncertain housing when he started living there in late 2017.

In the mid-1980s, Karczmarczyk was fired from his job as a Springfield police officer and was let go by a series of temp agencies until he landed a job with the Department of Revenue. State. He stayed there until his struggles with alcohol interfered again. He was eventually fired in 2007.

“They’ve been really good to me,” Karczmarczyk said. “They sent me five or six times to very expensive rehabs. Then someone in human resources said the magic word: disability retirement.

He soon found himself spending all his checks on booze. He lost his apartment and spent time living in a series of cheap motels, all of which eventually got him kicked out for bad behavior. Then he found himself standing in a park in December 2017 with nowhere to go.

He estimates he was truly homeless for about two hours until he met a staff member from Soldier On, an agency dedicated to ending homelessness among veterans. Karczmarczyk was then placed in a spartan chamber at the “dom” of Holyoke.

“I tried rehab. I tried the AA thing. I tried the church thing. None of that worked,” he said. “It’s the longest period of sobriety I’ve had in my entire adult life. And losing him really scares me.

Karczmarczyk said he was promised when he arrived that he could stay in the dorms until he felt ready to live outside. But no one could predict the impact of COVID-19.

There were about 20 veterans in the dorm last year and now there are only half a dozen, Karczmarczyk said. Many have moved to the main Soldiers’ Home campus, but Karczmarczyk is among the few people too young or too physically able to qualify for a place in the long-term care facility.

Although the domiciliation program was designed as a short-term stopover to more permanent housing, the average length of stay is four and a half years, according to the administrator of the soldiers’ home, Kevin Jourdain, compared to 18 months in the long-term care facility. . Karczmarczyk said there was a resident who had moved into the main house and had been in the dorm for two decades.

Karczmarczyk can’t say exactly why the soldiers’ hostel program worked better for him than any other. Maybe it’s the camaraderie of other veterans. Maybe it’s the staff.

It’s not down to fancy accommodations, though the sweeping valley views from campus aren’t unpleasant. He spends many days cycling on the gigantic hill where his house is located and climbing the slope with his bike.

“These guys. The staff here…it’s the closest I’ve ever had to a big family,” Karczmarczyk said with a smile. “I see it as a big, dysfunctional family. never felt alone.

Before a reporter started making calls about the shelter program, Karczmarczyk said that although he had a meeting with a social worker employed by the soldiers’ shelter, no one seemed particularly motivated to help the few stragglers. stayed in the dorm.

He had an offer to move to Chelsea, where there is another state-run home that caters more to the homeless veteran population. But he was disconcerted to leave the area where he has always lived outside of his military service.

He emailed state officials and received no response. A soldier’s house administrator he called on wished him well and hoped the life skills he learned at the dorm would come in handy, according to Karczmarczyk.

He now has a solid prospect with Soldier On, the agency that rescued him five years ago from this park when he was homeless and alone.

State Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat and combat veteran who has been a staunch supporter of the Soldiers’ Home, said he was committed to defending Karczmarczyk and others in the housing program. Trustees, including Jourdain and the chairman, Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe, also pledged their support.

“We can’t just leave these guys hanging. These guys are counting on us,” said Jourdain, who plans to raise the issue at a directors’ meeting this week. “We’re going to make sure this administration does the right thing for Ed and everyone else, for that matter. It was supposed to be their forever home.

Jourdain also points to the housing issue as an example of why a proposal to abolish local boards of directors in Holyoke and Chelsea in favor of a statewide advisory board is, in his view, a bad idea.

“That’s all the more reason for the state legislature to know that we should have a Western Massachusetts Board of Directors. Once there’s a state-wide advisory board state, they just become a number,” Jourdain said.

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