By Ed Karvoski Jr., Contributing Writer
Marlborough – Sweats for Vets began in 2011 to give Boston sports team sweatshirts as holiday gifts to about 60 homeless military veterans at a Veterans, Inc. shelter in Worcester. Exceeding 2017’s goal of 1,100 sweatshirts, the ever-expanding nonprofit organization distributed 1,137 gifts to veterans at 54 locations in all New England states including homeless shelters and transitional housing programs.
Sweatshirts are donated or purchased with monetary contributions. With 2018’s goal set at 1,200 sweatshirts and plans to add at least four new locations, Sweats for Vets president and founder Mark Vital of Marlborough hopes to surpass past efforts again.
“Every year we try to increase the number of sweatshirts by at least 100,” he explained. “If we get more, then we’ll be able to support other shelters.”
During this past year’s deliveries, Vital observed that the amount of homeless veterans formerly in the Boston and Worcester shelters has shifted to smaller facilities elsewhere.
“There are less veterans in the large shelters,” he noted. “The federal government is trying to pull vets out of shelters and get them into transitional housing where they get case management support. In my opinion, it’s only sporadic support. I don’t know the success rate of those housings, but I suspect it’s not that great because all the smaller shelters needed more sweatshirts from us.”
The number of sweatshirts delivered to the New England Center for Homeless Veterans in Boston had steadily increased to 320 throughout several years. In 2017, however, the need for sweatshirts at the Boston shelter decreased to 170.
In contrast, more sweatshirts were delivered to Veteran Homestead, an independent, nonprofit organization based in northern central Massachusetts that provides housing. Previously, 12 sweatshirts went to its one location in Fitchburg. In 2017, 80 sweatshirts were delivered and distributed to its six locations including Fitzwilliam, N.H, and Puerto Rico,
Among Vital’s new 2017 destinations was a delivery of 45 sweatshirts to Preble Street in Portland, Maine. Preble Street’s varied services include veterans housing.
“I went up there on this winter’s coldest day with a wind chill of 20 below zero,” he relayed. “There were about 250 to 300 homeless people in this gigantic room, just trying to get out of the cold. I felt ashamed that we could have so many homeless people on a day like that in America.”
While in Maine, Vital brought 18 sweatshirts to Volunteers of America’s transitional housing program in Biddeford.
“A vet there told me, ‘You gave me a sweatshirt three years ago in Boston and I still have it,’” Vital recounted. “The poor guy doesn’t own a lot, but he now has two sweatshirts.”
In 2018, Vital plans to add deliveries to a minimum of four Connecticut shelters.
“I’ve been to places where I never expected to have homeless vets, but they’re there and in need,” he said. “Sweats for Vets brings them a little pride and warmth.”