Since 1983, Brighton Marine Health Center (BMHC) has been a vital social service resource to the Allston-Brighton community, and in particular, to its veterans. So perhaps it is just a logical extension of a long-standing mission that Brighton Marine now embarks on its most ambitious project to date: the development of more than 100 units of affordable housing along Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton to accommodate soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who are drawn to city living but are unable to meet the expense.
For veterans and their families, doors once closed are soon to be opened. The construction of this veterans-preference complex will allow a veteran hired as a Boston police officer or firefighter to meet residency requirements and rent an apartment in Boston. It will allow a health care worker returning from service who has been hired at one of Boston’s many hospitals to live close to his/her job. It will allow a native of Brighton who left to serve his country to come back to the neighborhood he/she loves.
Even as its main focus is to serve veterans and their families, this project expands on a decades-long commitment BMHC and its predecessor, the U.S. Marine Hospital has maintained to serve the needs of the Allston-Brighton community. At its campus at 77 Warren Street in Brighton, BMHC hosts 10 organizations providing medical care and health services for military veterans and non-military personnel. They include St. Elizabeth’s Health Care, The Home for Little Wanderers and the Addiction Treatment Center of New England. Together they provide critical medical care, housing for teenagers, treatment for patients with dependency issues and other services to about 2,700 patients and residents per week.
The roots of BMHC extend back to 1798, when John Adams was president and Congress was meeting for only the fifth time. The new nation’s leaders recognized that foreign trade was necessary to grow the economy and that healthy merchant seamen were needed to enable that commerce. So Congress passed “An Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen,” which provided funding for the Marine Hospital Service.
Over time the Boston-area marine hospital moved from Boston Harbor, to Charlestown to Chelsea, before its final stop in Brighton in 1940. By then the Seamen and Sailors Act, as it is sometimes called, had expanded to include funding for a greater array of community services and the Marine Hospital Service had evolved into the Public Health Service which included a network of public hospitals under its umbrella.
In 1980 the Reagan Administration decided to close many of the hospitals around the country within the public hospital system, including Brighton Marine. But the service veterans who lived in the Allston-Brighton area were not ready to let it go. They formed an organization called the Allston-Brighton Aid and Health Group and successfully petitioned the federal government to allow them to take over the property and continue medical services for veterans. That led to a new business entity in 1981 called Brighton Marine Health Center. Veterans’ care continued to be a priority, but BMHC also became a landlord on the grounds — operating the facility and managing the property for a burgeoning list of community-oriented health care tenants.
Today clinical services that once were only for military beneficiaries are available to other members of the community and are provided by St. Elizabeth’s Health Care, which rents about 90 percent of the main building on the campus. In Building 9, the Home for Little Wanderers runs a program called the Children’s Collaborative which prepares 18 to 20 teenage boys and girls to age out of the foster care system or return to their family homes.
The Addiction Treatment Center of New England, one of BMHC’s original tenants, is a clinically operated drug treatment program, helping clients to gain control of their lives and discover alternatives to their addictions. Every day the methadone treatment facility dispenses 300 to 400 doses to as many patients.
The Brighton-Allston Mental Health Association, officially known as Family and Community Solutions, a program of the Italian Home for Children, provides therapy services to children, teens and adults of all ages by building on the positives in their lives.
Brighton Marine Health Center’s partnerships extend off-campus as well. To support the Junior ROTC program at nearby Brighton High School, BMHC has established the Arthur Berg Leadership Scholarship, a $5,000 annual college stipend named after the former director of the facility and given to a deserving Junior ROTC student. Working with the City of Boston Private Industry Council, the center engages students from Brighton High in a summer internship program, Shadow Day and career resume and interviewing counseling.
Brighton Marine Health Center is also helping to provide fitness equipment for Brighton High to help the school combat childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes. And whenever the school wins a sports championship, BMHC provides the champions with team jackets.
Farther away from campus, BMHC has created a partnership with the Pine Street Inn, another organization whose guests include veterans. To help with the crisis of homelessness among veterans, four years ago BMHC provided volunteer grounds-keeping, painting and other exterior work on a Dorchester property that was being renovated for veterans. Since then about 70 percent of BMHC’s staff has volunteered in Pine Street’s kitchen and guests who are involved with Pine Street’s internship program have found work at BMHC.
The next step in BMHC’s commitment to veterans and the community is the affordable housing project. With the Pine Street Inn and the New England Center for Homeless Veterans focused on homelessness, the BMHC intends to make living in Boston attainable for veterans.
It’s an ambitious undertaking but one that an organization such as Brighton Marine Health Center, with its long record of project management, community building and commitment to veterans, is eager to assume.