“The Great Homeless Veterans Bank Robbery”
by Ken Smith
The Homeless Veterans Bank Robbery
Every day at the homeless veterans shelter in Boston at ten in the morning there was a huge influx of vets. These were vets who lived in other shelters of the city for the most part, and they comprised the three hundred or so homeless veterans who came every day for lunch.
The lunch program wasn’t something that was funded by any government grant, as the state of Massachusetts gave us money only for breakfast and dinner for those who lived in the building. The state paid us $2.42 per day per vet, and we needed to serve each vet breakfast and dinner from that money.
You couldn’t even go to McDonald’s with that budget, and so we supplemented.
We sent volunteer homeless veteran work crews every day to the wholesale food distributors just outside of Boston and we offered our services for anything that they could give to us. We worked for our food.
The produce wholesalers would give us all kinds of stuff just before it spoiled and I can remember working with the large frozen food distributors and we would offer to clean out walk-in freezers for anything that they could give to us to feed those who came to our shelter for food.
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we had an eye clinic that taught medical students from Tufts University giving eye exams to homeless vets, and twice a month we had the two largest law schools bring their senior students, under the guidance of a practicing attorney, to help with any legal issues that any vet who lived at the shelter presented.
In order to sleep in the building you needed to give four hours a week back to the shelter in volunteer time. It was your payment for what you got. These volunteer hours were monitored and if you wanted to come into lunch every day, you also had to work. There was KP duty (kitchen police), a daily after lunch clean-up crew, a latrine clean up crew, and of course trash needed to be dealt with every day and then the whole cycle needed to be reset for dinner later that day.
There were all kinds of people coming and going this one particular day in the spring and new client intake was busy and sick bay was busy and of course there were also AA and NA meetings that were being conducted.
So all in all, the place was wicked busy.
We had “sweeper crews” that would stop the traffic outside our building and most days we swept the street and the sidewalks and conducted a police call (military term for picking up trash) as we had deals with the local doughnut shops and restaurants around our neighborhood to come and take whatever food they had that was extra when they closed every night too.
As a result, the lunch menu was never the same two days in a row.
Nobody ever went hungry and I have fond memories of some hotel meals from business conferences that were cancelled or weddings that were called off and banquets chefs that cooked more than they could use.
This one day in the late spring we had our doors open, the windows on the ground floor were open and it was busy. Homelessness is migratory and it was busier in the spring and summer months than in the winter.
The usual staff of about twenty were working and the place was humming right along.
The eye doctors had a waiting list of vets sitting in chairs along the wall and it was a day for the lawyers so we had more than our usual amount of traffic. At the same time, vets were showing up from Florida and other warm southern states as the word had spread to head to Boston for one of the only vet shelters in the nation. I was checking on the mess sergeant and the lunch menu for the day in the kitchen on the first floor and reviewing his needs when I came around the corner of the kitchen into the dining room area where a couple of hundred vets were sitting waiting for lunch and I saw three or four Boston cops, all with guns out, turning right, then left then right again.
Holy crap I thought to myself, they have guns out.
Just then my two way radio went nuts.
Command one, command one, (that was my handle) come to the front desk right away.
I saw the cops looking at me and so I walked around the corner to the front desk and holy crap, there were like a dozen other Boston cops with guns out.
“Can I help you?” I said to one who looked to be in charge
“Did someone just run in here?” he asked.
I looked at the front desk officer of the day and said “Well?” Did someone just come in here?
“Not really, sir, I mean we’ve been really busy, and of course people come and go, but nobody ran in here, at least I don’t remember anyone running in here.”
“Why? What’s going on?” I asked the cop.
“Someone just robbed the bank right around the corner and the teller put in an exploding dye bag and we thought, well, sorry, we thought he might have come in here.”
This guy was just getting ready to leave with the other cops when the front desk guy says, “You know, there is that guy in sick bay; he had the trouble with the transmission fluid all over his hands.”
Now, transmission fluid is red and the cop looked at me and I looked at the door to the sickbay and we both started walking that way. The cop opened the door and here was a guy, no shirt on, no shoes on, just blue jeans, with two medics trying to wipe off what they were told was transmission fluid.
The cop said, “FREEZE!”
And it was just like in the movies, next thing I know, two cops had this guy handcuffed and they were walking him out the door.
“What the hell happened?” said the medics.
“The guy robbed a bank and got the dye pack all over him. You two nitwits were treating him for exposure to transmission fluid.”
An hour later some detectives approached me and they said, you know, the guy wasn’t even a vet how’d he even get in here?
Good question, I replied.
From that moment on, no matter what happened, before you were let into the homeless veterans shelter we made sure that you were a United States military veteran.
For more than twenty-five years Ken Smith has been a leading advocate for veterans. A combat Vietnam veteran, Ken served during 1971-72 as a paramedic and an infantry squad leader with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. After his discharge, Ken continued his work as a paramedic in New England. On the streets of Boston he encountered growing numbers of homeless Vietnam veterans, and he became determined to both assist them and draw attention to their plight.
In 1989, Ken founded the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, located in a former VA hospital at 17 Court Street in downtown Boston. One of the first facilities designed for homeless veterans and now a national model, the shelter has served over 35,000 of America’s veterans who, for whatever reason, find themselves living on the streets.
In 1992 Ken was awarded Point of Light #142 by President George H. W. Bush, and later that same year received the AMVETS Silver Helmet Award, considered the “Oscar” for American veterans. As one of America’s foremost veterans service organizations, AMVETS (or American Veterans) has a proud history of assisting veterans and sponsoring numerous programs that serve our country and its citizens. Ken was awarded this honor along with Peter Coors, with whom he still maintains a personal friendship.
Over the years Ken has appeared on many national media programs including Good Morning America, Prime Time Live, ABC News, CBS News, Larry King Live, CNN, 60 Minutes, and The Geraldo Show. He has been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, and numerous international newspapers, magazines, and websites. In 1992, Ken had the distinction of addressing both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a keynote speaker on the subject of veterans.
Ken recently left his last assignment with the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, where he was the chief technology architect of the Veteran’s Vocational Technical Institute, Purple Heart Car Donation program, Purple Heart Call Center, Purple Heart Radio, Purple Heart Tech Support, Purple Heart Services, and over thirty new Purple Heart websites. Ken Smith provided the vision and has overseen the implementation of innovative, virtual, work-at-home training programs for veterans with combat disabilities. Ken has designed, upgraded, and supervised the integration and installation of Purple Heart Service Foundations computer and telephony systems, upgrading features from legacy POTS phones to SIP-trunked communications systems including establishing new VPN networks for teams of remote virtual employees.
An adventure sports enthusiast, Ken enjoys extreme skiing, competitive sailing, flying, and travel. He has traveled extensively worldwide, delivering his positive message to the veterans of other countries that a paraplegic veteran of the United States suffers the same as a paraplegic veteran of India; that an amputee veteran of Nepal suffers as much as an amputee veteran of France. Ken’s mentor was Harold Russell, the two-time Academy Award winner who starred in the 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives. A World War II veteran, on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Harold lost both of his hands. This ghastly misfortune did not stop him, and he went on to become the chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Disabilities. For over fifty years he served US presidents from Truman to Clinton. Ken was humbled and grateful when Harold agreed to serve as the best man at Ken’s wedding.
Ken has been instrumental in the planning stages for the Veterans Workshop, a new nationwide veterans’ advocacy group building a new “Veterans Hotline, and the development of special programs for those who have lost their sight or their hearing, or who have suffered spinal cord injury, as a result of their military experience. The Veterans Workshop provides a forum where new technology and advancements in the fields of prosthetic and orthotic solutions, many designed by Ken, are shared along with virtual training and employment programs.
A 1970 graduate of De La Salle Academy in Newport, Rhode Island, for the past twenty-five years Ken has continued his education with extensive college courses in computer technology and related social service fields. He resides in his native state of Rhode Island with his wife and children.