The Skipper's New Ship

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  8/12/2002

He doesn't bounce quarters off their beds. Nor does he order them to drop for push-ups. But when one of his charges crosses the line, the captain swiftly disciplines them with "fire watch," "kitchen patrol," or "the can" - jail.


Five years ago, Jim McIsaac commanded a destroyer that patrolled the Persian Gulf for Iraqi smugglers. Though his subordinates still call him skipper, he now has a much different command: At 46, the career Navy man is in charge of keeping a growing number of the region's former soldiers and sailors off the streets.

"The crew is a little more dysfunctional than I'm used to," says McIsaac, now tousle-haired after two years at the helm of the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans. "The philosophy is the same as in the service: We don't leave our wounded behind. But this is the last stop on the Blue Line - and we tell them it's time to get off of the train."

As homelessness rises to record levels in Boston and most other major cities across the country, so do the numbers of street vets. Today, one in four homeless men served in the military, according to the Washington-based National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and on any given night, some 275,000 of them live on the nation's streets.

Since the New England shelter opened in 1990 in downtown Boston - making it the nation's first exclusively for homeless veterans - it has housed, clothed, and fed more than 11,000 people. Despite budget cuts and a falloff in donations, the shelter is now providing for record numbers.

On a recent night, 358 vets slept in the 10-story shelter near Government Center, numbers usually only seen during the worst winter nights, McIsaac says. Of those, nearly half are veterans of the Vietnam War and about a dozen are women - a small but growing percentage of homeless veterans.

"Our goal was to go out of business in 10 years," says Mark Helberg, who helped found the shelter after being outraged by the throngs of homeless veterans sleeping next to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. "Unfortunately, the problem is only getting worse."

Since McIsaac came aboard the shelter has become a tight ship. Unlike many other shelters, where officials look the other way when someone arrives boozed or drugged up, sobriety is a requirement for entry.

And if anyone is caught dealing drugs, even outside the shelter, they won't just be barred from returning, as they are from many places. In the past month, the shelter has had seven people arrested on charges of selling drugs.

"We're the toughest shelter in town," says McIsaac, who left the Navy in 1997 to try to save a failing marriage and help his 14-year-old daughter fight a heroin addiction. "I'm mental about drug abuse. If my staff comes to me about someone dealing, I tell them don't kick him out, I'm going to get him arrested."

The strict rules include requiring the veterans to cut their hair, wash their clothes, make their beds, search for jobs, and, among other things, participate in "cleanup detail" and "security watches." There's also no panhandling allowed. "We don't allow our guys to beg," McIsaac says. "Being a veteran is about having some pride."

Despite the stern setting, no police officers or security guards patrol the premises. It's the veterans themselves who keep a watch on the "decks," rows of bunk beds illuminated with the kind of red lights common on warships.

The lack of guards, some of the shelter's residents say, has had an adverse effect with increasing thefts and raising fears of assaults.

"They are trying to give us the dignity and freedom of not having guards search us, but our dignity and freedom is compromised by other people here who don't respect those things," says Richard, a 65-year-old former Navy radio operator who served in Korea and, like others, wouldn't give his last name.

"Some of the people here come in high on heroin or whatever, because there isn't the guards there," says Jim, a 75-year-old former submariner who had his bag stolen a few weeks ago. Despite the concerns, McIsaac says he has no plans to change the shelter's security arrangement. There hasn't been a violent incident since he took over in 2000, he says, and thefts rarely amount to more than the stealing of shower shoes.

"I don't believe I'll make this place safer by making it a gulag," he says.
Instead, McIsaac lays down the law and takes action as soon as there's a violation.

Every week, the blunt captain meets about a dozen of the shelter's newly homeless veterans to put them on notice. He expects them to start putting their lives back together and, for as long as they're on his ship, to obey his rules and "be a good shipmate."

At one recent meeting, he tells his new charges that if they don't get their lives back on track - meeting counselors, attending job-training programs, and searching for a job and a place to live - they should expect their future to include one of two outcomes: jail or an early grave.
He tells them he now attends two funerals a month, and he isn't looking forward to theirs.


"Don't lose sight of the fact that this is the bottom - this is a shelter," he says. "You're in a pit, and you need to climb out of it. Just because you're a veteran doesn't mean I owe you anything. This isn't an entitlement. This is your life - and it's time to get back in the swing of things."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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