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The Boston Globe   - October 14, 2000 

Shelter director deserves better treatment

                                                                                By Brian C. Mooney

As he often does, popular Irish tenor, John McDermott came to Boston Thursday.  This time he was on a mission of charity, delivering a check for $17,000 to the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans on Court Street.

The 10-year-old shelter was opening new counseling offices for veterans who need help.  But it was a bittersweet moment for McDermott, and not just because the new wing is named for his mother, Hope McDermott, who died in January.  The singer was disturbed by the news that the shelter's executive director, Tom Lyons, may soon be replaced.

McDermott and Lyons have been fast friends "since my first day in the US in 1996," recalled the singer, who grew up in Scotland, the son of Irish immigrants.  The Boston shelter is his chief charity in this country.

"I'd trust Tommy Lyons with my life," said McDermott, who now lives in Toronto.  McDermott was puzzled by reports that the shelter's governing board is searching for someone to lead a vaguely defined effort to become a national presence.

Some Lyons supporters fear an attempt to restore the influence of Ken Smith, the mercurial activist whose vision and drive created the shelter but whose mismanagement and style alienated veterans advocates.  He was forced out as executive director after a 1995 Globe story detailing his failing and apparent fabrications about his service in the Vietnam Way.

Lawyer Thomas Sobol, the board chairman, denied any grand plan to resurrect Smith, who prior to his ouster tried to set up a foundation to replicated the Boston effort around the United States and remains a member of the shelter's board of directors.

Sobol praises Lyon's work.  "He's done a terrific job to stabilize and make part of the landscape in Boston the shelter as an institution, he said.  Lyon could be retained, depending on how he measure up against other applications, said Sobol.

The board is considering " a more aggressive national agenda," Sobol said.  "we've got to do something to increase tremendously our private funding sources and figure out a way to spread our influence nationally."  Despite many improvements under Lyons, fundraising remains flat and the facility still relies heavily on government funding, Sobol said.

Is a national presence practical in the fight for charitable and government dollars?  Who knows?  Meanwhile, the shelter risk angering major benefactions.

"I don't know what the beef is against [Lyons]," said US Representative J. Joseph Moakley, the force behind a $4.5 million federal grant that launched the facility and who has helped win critical funding since then.  A wing of 59 single-room apartments, opening in 1997, is named for him.

"I wouldn't let them put my name on something unless I was sure about the people running the place," Moakley said.  "Tommy's on top of every program.  Because he's there, people like myself pay a lot more attention to it."

Thomas Flatley, real estate mogul and philanthropist, is also disturbed.  "His whole heart and soul are in it.  I think they're making a grievous error," said Flately, who donated $400,000.

State Veterans Services Commissioner Thomas G. Kelley strongly urged Sobol to keep Lyons.  In a letter this week, Kelley praised Lyons profusely for stabilizing shaky shelter finances and restoring public confidence.  The state provides about $2.5 million of the shelter's $5.6 million annual budget.

Lyons, a former Marine and Vietnam combat veterans, was reluctant to discuss his status during a tour of the shelter.  "I'll just say the staff remains focused because this is a critical time of year, " he said of peak fund-raising and increased cold-weather demand for about 350 beds.

He was, however, eager to point out improvement to the once-dumpy building.  There are many: a gleaming health clinic providing medical, dental and eye care services; a modern kitchen, which serves 700 meals a day, doubling as a classroom; a busy computer lab, the key component of a job-training program that has placed nearly 2,000 veterans in high-tech, culinary arts and bus or truck-driving jobs.

Sadly, it's always a struggle for shelter and soup kitchens that serve the damaged and destitute among us.  If the minor miracle on Court Street can be reproduced as a chain of McShelters, we wish Sobol and company God speed.  For their efforts, however, Tom Lyons and his friends deserve more than mumbo jumbo about strategic planning and a national agenda.