MANCHESTER, NH – Keith Howard falls into the visionary category – and he’s comfortable with that. It’s why, when he stepped in as Executive Director of The Liberty House five years ago, he was able to see what was needed, and shake things up just enough to get positive results.
It’s also why he announced to his board last week that he’s resigning, effective Sept. 1.
“I leave with no regrets. Things have worked out much better than anyone could’ve predicted,” said Howard, on Thursday. “But I think maybe now it’s time for the Liberty House to move from a visionary to a manager, as they transition into the next phase. Visionaries are necessary for some aspects of change, but at a certain point an organization is big and stable enough that you don’t need someone rushing off to see what’s over the next hilltop.”
A good segue into what’s next for Howard, who is fond of off-the-beaten-path adventure – you’ll remember that in 2015 he constructed and lived in a “tiny home” parked for a time outside of the Liberty House, to demonstrate how converting small trailers into efficient housing units could help ease the problem of homelessness among veterans – and the general population.
Howard’s “next hilltop” includes a year’s sabbatical, during which he will be living in an even tinier home at the tippy-top of New Hampshire, working on some writing projects and considering how he might continue his work with veterans in a different way.
“I’ll be relocating for next year to live in a 6-by-10-foot box at Warriors @ 45 North, a retreat center for wounded vets in Pittsburg, doing writing of my own, and running workshops. It’s primarily a hunting and fishing place, and they’re looking for ways to increase the number of folks who take advantage of the offer,” says Howard.
Encouraging veterans to make the 3½-hour trek to New Hampshire’s wilderness, especially for those who aren’t avid outdoorsmen, can be a hard sell, says Howard.
“You’re going to a place where there’s nothing to do but kill animals, hike or snowmobile. My idea of setting up a program there becomes a hook for those who might be interested in going out for nature walks and being part of a writing workshop, but not so much for 10 hours of fly-fishing,” he says.
For right now, this is Howard’s idea of a dream engagement – he won’t be earning money from the gig, but says he has enough saved to cover the minimal costs related to living and working in a tiny space. The dream part for him is having the time and space to do some self-reflecting, and writing.
“It’s about time to do a memoir of some kind, and take a year off to enjoy life in a box in the forest,” he says.
He will leave the Liberty House with bragging rights – in five years he’s transformed the urban outpost for homeless veterans from a struggling organization mired in some internal financial muck, into a respected and highly regarded nonprofit, even making national news as one of a small number of veterans organizations on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s fundraiser, which he held in lieu of attending a televised GOP debate.
Howard also boldly announced in 2015 that, as of Jan. 1, 2016, the Liberty House was no longer going to accept federal funding – which amounts to about $50,000 annually – because it would require them to drop its commitment to being a “sober house,” by allowing any veteran to stay, even those still struggling with addiction.
It was a deal breaker for a guy like Howard, who knows the slippery slope of addiction, first hand.
That turned out to be a stroke of genius, as donations to Liberty House have tripled – and the organization has more than doubled its annual budget. On Howard’s watch, Liberty House also saw its “success rate” go from 35 percent to 74 percent for helping residents transitioning back to a self-sufficiency, free of drugs and alcohol.
For Howard, that last part is what the mission of Liberty House is really all about. He knows that what happens at the Liberty House has meaning, even for those who don’t factor in to the record book as “success stories.”
That became clear during their recent annual celebration honoring Harold Paczosa, a Manchester WWII veteran who died in 1943 when the transport ship he was aboard was sunk. Paczosa’s sister willed the family home to the VFW, with the stipulation that it be used as a home for military veterans in some capacity.
During that ceremony at Blessed Sacrament Church, Howard motioned toward a brown bag next to him, which had held the cremains of former Liberty House resident and military veteran, Chuck Barry, who arrived at Liberty House about three years ago. He lasted about three months.
“Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, he couldn’t figure out how to stay sober. Chuck went back to drinking and, at 72, because he had alienated everyone else in his life, he asked the Liberty House to be his next of kin.”
Two weeks earlier, Howard went to the Manchester rooming house where Chuck was staying, just to check in on him.
“I discovered his corpse,” said Howard. Because Barry had no money, Howard was told his remains would be taken to Concord and placed in a pauper’s grave.
“Chuck was eligible to be buried at the Veteran’s cemetery, but in order to do that, he needed to be embalmed or cremated, so we paid to have him cremated,” Howard said.
A simple ceremony was held at the Liberty House, to honor Chuck – and all of those who have come through who didn’t quite get it.
“I recalled Chuck’s brief time with us, probably the only time in the last 15 years of his life that he was sober. It may have been the healthiest, most productive time of his life. I was able to remember him as the man sitting out back with the others, as part of a community, just smoking cigarettes and laughing and enjoying a second chance at life,” says Howard.
“It’s really nice to celebrate success. But even for those who leave and stumble again, it’s good to know that while they were with us, their lives are filled with charity and meaning and living lives of community among other veterans, and that they were sober,” says Howard.
He says he’s excited to have a plan for the next phase of his own life. Howard’s second chance came when he had hit his own rock bottom several years ago and, through the VA, was able to not only regain his footing, but get to a place where he could offer that same assistance and opportunity to others, through his work at Liberty House.
Taking leave of a job he loves while he still loves it makes perfect sense to Howard. The responsibility is enormous, and he takes it to heart – so much that a recent emergency situation helped him to see that it was time to ponder the next leg of his own personal journey of sobriety and self-growth.
“About a month ago I was leaving town on a Friday night, heading up north to Pittsburg, when I got a phone call that one of our Liberty House residents had a seizure and was at the hospital. I was in Colebrook at the time. I turned the car around and headed back to Manchester to make sure he was OK. The next day I went back to the hospital to check on him, and by then, it was too late to leave town,” says Howard. “That’s when I realized I’m married to the organization and father to 10 formerly homeless veterans. It occurred to me at that moment that I really want to experience some other things at this stage in my life.”
At 58, Howard, a father of three adult daughters, is looking forward to finding a moderate-sized canine companion to adopt and join him in his tiny mountain retreat – a four-legged friend to replace his faithful hound Lucy, whose temporary stay with Howard’s youngest daughter during his summer vacation turned into a long-term non-negotiable relationship.
In planning his next adventure, Howard remains the responsible father figure, both literally and figuratively. He’s made a commitment to his daughters that he’ll return from the wilds of northern New Hampshire at least once a month for quality time, and he’s deliberately built six months into his exit plan so he can help Liberty House find the right next leader to help sustain the organization’s vital mission, and support the residents for whom it represents a house of redemption and haven from life’s darkest corners.
“And I know at the end of the year there will be some other organization that will say ‘we need a quirky visionary to help us get things moving here,’ and with any luck, I will have a chance to help another organization in some meaningful way,” says Howard.