Last August, Barbara Barnes, a former Air Force staff sergeant, walked into the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in downtown Boston. It was not easy, said Barnes, a recovering alcoholic.
“Every step I took was difficult, and I couldn’t stop crying,” the 56-year-old said. “It’s tough to accept help, but I knew I needed it; and when I walked in, the folks at the front door said, ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to be OK.’ ”
She stayed in temporary housing there because the center, while offering 59 permanent apartments for male veterans, offered none for women. That is one of many things that will change as part of a $21 million renovation that is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2014.
The overhaul will add 35 more permanent apartments, with seven on a floor dedicated to women. And the emphasis at the homeless center will shift from temporary to long-term housing.
“The end of homelessness for someone is not really transitional housing, although that’s certainly important,” said Andrew McCawley, the center’s president. “The transitional housing model says that people need a certain amount of time, up to two years, to be ‘ready’ for permanent housing. I think we understand better now that a more effective model is to put veterans in permanent housing right away, so that they feel stable and ready for success.”
Money for the renovation will come mostly from city, state, and federal sources, though about 25 percent will be from private donors. In mid-August, the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved the large-scale upgrade, which will also make the building more handicap accessible and create office space for services to prevent homelessness.
The renovation will also reflect a shift in veteran demographics: The center now supports a growing number of younger veterans and women. Almost one-quarter of the center’s residents are veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; they tend to be young, and the number of women may double in the next two decades.
So that each veteran can receive more attention, the renovation will cut the number of temporary beds — currently at about 320 — that are offered to clients for up to two years. Smaller and more specialized dormitories will mean that veterans can have their own, separate space if they want it. Younger veterans might be more concerned with finding long-lasting employment than older veterans, who might just want a supportive place to live, McCawley said.
Female veterans need special attention, too, said Helen Wooten, director of case management.
The separate floor for permanent apartments will ensure that women, some of whom experienced sexual trauma while in the service, will not have to interact with men if they don’t want to. And the temporary beds for women will be relocated so women can access that room without walking through the dining hall and other common areas often filled with men.
One female resident, a 58-year-old Army veteran who was stationed in Germany in the 1970s and declined to give her name, said she would feel more comfortable if she did not have to interact with men on the way to her dorm.
“It’s nice for anyone to come home and have their own driveway and their own front door,” she said. “That’s what it will be like, and I’ll feel a lot better.”
Marc Mallard, 53, a National Guard and Army veteran who has lived at the Court Street center since April 2012, said he is looking forward to more handicap accessibility. The renovations will fix two elevators and add a third — a necessary improvement, said Mallard, who walks with a cane.
Sometimes, he said, when too many people are using the elevators, he stays upstairs. For many aging and injured veterans, stairs are too difficult, he said.
Still, several residents said they do not notice the building’s shortcomings.
“I felt safe coming into a building with veterans because I knew they’d have my back, and they have,” Barnes said. “The renovation is just an additional bonus.”