John Keveaney

Reprinted from PN January 2012

White House honors U.S. Army veteran who co-founded facility for homeless and disabled veterans.

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It was a hard-fought and rewarding journey for U.S. Army veteran John Keaveney to be honored at the White House.

In October 2011, Keaveney was one of 13 people who received a Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second-highest civilian honor. President Barack Obama made the presentations during a ceremony in the White House East Room.

Keaveney earned the medal through his creation of New Directions, a home for homeless and disabled veterans who have addictions and mental-health problems. He overcame similar struggles of his own and turned his life around in the 1980s.

As an infantryman, Keaveney served two combat tours in Vietnam, was wounded, and left in 1972 with several decorations and distinctions. He also left with a drug problem. 

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Keaveney left home at 15 to be a merchant seaman and later immigrated to the United States. About military service, he says “combat can erode a vet’s self-worth.” After separation, for 11 years he struggled between homelessness and prison.

Keaveney didn’t know he had posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trying to ease his anguish with drugs and alcohol, he developed a severe substance-abuse problem. In 1983, he was court-committed to a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) New Directions drug rehab program.

When budget cuts shut that program in 1988, Keaveney, Larry Williams, and another vet created their own nonprofit, New Directions, Inc., to honor the program that had saved their lives.

Three years later, Keaveney met Toni Reinis, an advocate for homeless individuals, who founded Sova Kosher Food Pantry and served as Southern California’s director of the California Homeless and Housing Coalition. Sova is Hebrew for “eat and be satisfied.”

The duo had an immediate rapport, Keaveney recalls, and they joined forces to assist the vast number of homeless vets in Los Angeles County. A year later, New Directions  bought its first property: a home for up to eight vets.

Clients could get up to two years of housing, plus clothing, substance abuse treatment, and job training. In the process, they learned what skills really matter to employers.

In 1994, according to Keaveney, New Directions  became the first U.S. social service agency to provide temporary housing/services to homeless female vets, at Mitchell House, in Mar Vista, Calif.

Then, Keaveney and Reinis invoked Title V of the McKinney-Vento Act and petitioned VA to lease for New Directions a 60,000-square-foot vacant building that could be converted to a facility for homeless veterans.

After years of congressional intervention, litigation, and support from the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and Health and Human Services (HHS), in 1995  New Directions, Inc., happily signed an unprecedented 50-year lease for the building.

The organization raised $5 million from government agencies and many individuals. Businesses and groups helped furnish and equip the 156-bed Regional Oppor-tunity Center.

Impressed by New Directions’ success in treating hundreds of vets for drugs and alcohol abuse, VA asked Keaveney and Reinis to create a residential treatment center for vets with substance abuse issues and chronic mental illness. In 2002, New Directions North began housing and treating homeless vets. In its first year, the agency served more than 100 clients.

In 2007, the Iraq/Afghanistan Deployment Impact Fund (IADIF) awarded New Directions a $2.75 million grant to launch Operation Welcome Home, designed specifically to assist Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans as they transition back to civilian life. Chris’s Place, a six-bedroom residence for these recently returned vets, opened in spring 2008.

Keaveney and 14 other vets were invited to Moscow to deal with alcohol- and drug-addicted vets of the Afghanistan war with high suicide rates.

“We set up symposiums, and I did a program on recovery,” Keaveney explains. “At a hospital, I was appalled by their living conditions. It was despicable.”

Back in the U.S., he received a thank-you letter and an invitation to set up a program at Mother Teresa’s Calcutta (India) drug treatment facility. 

As for New Directions, Keaveney says, “I created, along with others, the most comprehensive treatment program in the nation for veterans suffering from substance abuse, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders.” He says clients leave New Directions with a job, housing, a savings account, computer skills, renewed self-confidence, and the support of mentors and peers.

“Such a transformation takes hard work, motivation, and accountability, but the results are life-altering and, for many veterans, life-saving,” Keaveney adds.

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