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Helping homeless veterans, one trailer at a time

Boothbay VETS, founded by veterans Ed Harmon and Arthur Richardson, works to house veterans experiencing homelessness in Maine.

BOOTHBAY, Maine — Ed Harmon eyes the tape measure, while Arthur Richardson wields the notepad.

Ed calls off measurements from inside a cargo trailer, filled with insulation and wiring, that will eventually become a temporary home to a veteran.

The two men—both military veterans themselves—had the idea for temporary shelters for vets about three years ago. They bought a cargo trailer and fitted it with insulation and windows, then a built-in bed, desk, dresser, and electrical system. 

On January 1, 2020, they showed off the prototype to the Boothbay American Legion members.

The idea caught on.

Raising money through donations and grants, they bought more trailers, got donations of materials, and kept working.

The project got a name: Boothbay VETS, short for Veterans Emergency Temporary Shelters, and a mission began.

Ed Harmon, a Vietnam combat veteran, says they want to solve, at least temporarily, the problem of homeless veterans in Maine. 

The idea is to use the trailers as temporary shelters for those vets while more permanent housing is arranged. The trailers have electrical hookups so they can be connected to a building. The locations need to have bathroom and shower facilities available.

“Someone has to fight the fight for the ones that have been shunned or turned away many times, because they don’t trust people,” Harmon said. “They can’t say 'you don’t understand' because I was combat for a long time.”

Two-and-a-half years later, the men say they have completed eight of the trailers, which are now deployed at Legion Halls or homes around Maine, providing warm and safe shelters for veterans.

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The project has paid its bills from grants and donations, with all the work done for free. Arthur Richardson says that is part of the reason for their apparent grassroots success.

“Its strictly volunteer, every donation going into the trailer,” he said.

When asked if he thinks that is one of the reasons people have supported VETS, Richardson had a quick answer.

“I’m sure of it.”

They have gotten some hands-on help from the Rockland Elks club, and from staff members at the Togus VA Medical Center. Some of the people working in the benefits office learned of VETS, liked it, and wanted to help.

Robert Clark, a Navy veteran, is one of them. Clark says he was impressed by his first visit to the Boothbay shop.

“I just felt moved, very passionately moved, by the whole concept of what they were doing. Vets helping vets,” Clark said.

He says he shared the story with friends playing cards one night, and that led them to plan a fundraiser.

This Sunday, July 24, will begin a two-month walk-a-thon to raise money for Boothbay VETS. They will have a kickoff ceremony at 10 a.m. Sunday in Boothbay, but are hoping people all over Maine will collect pledges and walk where they live to help. 

“If you look at this and realize there are veterans out there, living in the brush — they don’t have anything,” Clark said.

He hopes to walk 100 miles in 2 months, and encourages others to do the same to raise money for the project.

The need, he says, is very real.

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“This is a need, this is like an olive branch being extended to my brothers and sisters, who maybe came home and haven’t arrived yet," he said. "They're still stuck. This is us helping them by helping this group, Boothbay VETS."

State officials have estimated there are currently 100 homeless veterans in Maine, all needing some amount of help.

“We’re trying to build more trailers so more homeless vets can get a roof over their heads, and we can meet their needs,” Clark said.

Harmon and Richardson say they know the need is there, and want to meet it. Harmon is 75, Richardson 10 years older, but neither say they want to stop building the shelters. 

The walk-a-thon begins Sunday morning at 10 a.m. at 752 Wiscasset Rd. in Boothbay.

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