Veterans in Holyoke Soldiers’ Home dorm for the homeless face uncertain futures as closure of program looms
HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — A Vietnam-era Air Force veteran sits in a makeshift library that is a bit dated. Not messy, exactly, but filled with dusty, tilted stacks of Tom Clancy novels and historical tomes, old editions of National Geographic and the like.
It may be more accurate to say the space has a throwback quality. With his carefully groomed mullet and Julian Edelman Patriots jersey, Ed Karczmarczyk knows he has one too.
He has relied on a program at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke that also fits that bill. But the quietly run program is soon to be extinct to make way for a massive, $400 million construction project.
While the construction of a new nursing home and adult day health program is a silver lining after the soldiers’ home was particularly hard-hit during the coronavirus pandemic, the project appears to have triggered some collateral damage.
Karczmarczyk is among a handful of men left at the facility’s 30-bed domiciliary program, which opened for homeless veterans in 1972. The dorm essentially operates as an extension of the main home, with access to meals and other services and is a stone’s throw from the primary building.
The domiciliary program is set to close March 31 to make way for the adult day health program, expected to serve about 150 veterans, a spokeswoman for the soldier’s home said.
“As more available housing and outpatient service options increased in western Massachusetts, the demand for domiciliary services has diminished over the last several years,” spokeswoman Debra Foley said, adding that a needs assessment conducted in advance of construction found diminishing demand for the dorm, which costs approximately $1.2 million annually to run.
The domiciliary program stopped taking new admissions in March of 2020, when the pandemic exploded, Foley said.
The economics of the scenario are of little solace to Karczmarczyk.
The 67-year-old Springfield native says the program finally yanked him out of a life of alcoholism, failed careers and uncertain housing when he began living there in late 2017.
In the mid-1980s Karczmarczyk was fired from his job as a Springfield police officer and let go from a series of temp agencies until he landed a gig with the state Department of Revenue. He remained there until his struggles with alcohol interfered once again. He was finally terminated in 2007.
“They were actually really good to me,” Karczmarczyk said. “They sent me to very expensive rehabs five or six times. Then someone in human resources said the magic words: disability retirement.”
He soon found himself spending his entire checks on booze. He lost his apartment and spent time living in a series of cheap motels, all of which ultimately evicted him for bad behavior. Then he found himself standing in a park in December of 2017 with nowhere to go.
He estimates he was truly homeless for about two hours until he met a staffer with Soldier On, an agency devoted to ending homelessness among veterans. Karczmarczyk was then placed in a spartan room at the “dom” in Holyoke.
“I tried the rehab thing. I tried the AA thing. I tried the church thing. None of it worked,” he said. “This is the longest period of sobriety I’ve had in my entire adult life. And to lose it makes me really scared.”
Karczmarczyk said he was promised when he arrived that he could stay in the dorms until he felt prepared to live on the outside. But no one could predict the impact of COVID-19.
There were roughly 20 veterans in the dormitory last year and now there are just a half-dozen, Karczmarczyk said. Many have moved over to the main campus at the soldiers’ home, but Karczmarczyk is among the few who are too young or too physically able to qualify for a spot at the long-term care facility.
Although the domiciliary program was designed as a short-term layover to more permanent housing, the average length of stay is four and a half years, according to soldiers’ home trustee Kevin Jourdain, as opposed to 18 months in the long-term care facility. Karczmarczyk said there was one resident who moved over to the main home who had been in the dorm for two decades.
Karczmarczyk cannot put into words exactly why the soldiers’ home program worked better for him than any other. Perhaps it is the camaraderie of other veterans. Perhaps it’s the staff.
It’s not due to posh accommodations, though the sweeping views of the valley from the campus are not unpleasant. He spends many days riding his bike down the gigantic hill where his home sits and walking his bike back up the slope.
“These guys. The staff here ... they’re the closest thing I’ve ever had to a big family,” Karczmarczyk said, grinning. “I look at it as one large, dysfunctional family. I’ve never felt alone.”
Before a reporter began making calls about the domiciliary program, Karczmarczyk said that although he had a meeting with a social worker employed by the soldiers’ home, no one appeared particularly motivated to help the few stragglers left in the dorm.
He had an offer to move out to Chelsea, where there is another state-run home that caters more to the homeless veteran population. But he was nonplussed over leaving the region where he has always lived outside of his military service.
He sent emails to state officials and received no responses. An administrator at the soldiers’ home to whom he appealed wished him good luck and hoped the life skills he learned at the dorm would serve him well, according to Karczmarczyk.
He now has a solid prospect with Soldier On, the agency that rescued him five years ago in that park when he was homeless and alone.
State Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat and combat veteran who has been a fervent champion of the soldiers’ home, said he is committed to advocating for Karczmarczyk and the others in the domiciliary program. Trustees including Jourdain and chairman Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe also have pledged their support.
“We can’t just leave these guys in the lurch. These guys are counting on us,” said Jourdain, who plans to raise the issue at a trustees meeting this week. “We’re going to make sure this administration does right by Ed and everyone else, for that matter. This was supposed to be their forever home.”
Jourdain also holds up the domiciliary issue as an example of why a proposal to abolish the local boards of trustees in Holyoke and Chelsea in favor of a statewide advisory board is, in his opinion, a bad idea.
“This is one more reason the state Legislature should know we should have a board of trustees from Western Massachusetts. Once there’s a statewide advisory board, they just become a number,” Jourdain said.
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