Project to help homeless veterans hopes to find them amid camouflage of shame, pride

Chicago Tribune Opinions 3 days ago

“Homeless veterans.”

We’ve heard this term so many times that it has lessened its significance and disappointment in our society. Part of the reason for this is the complexity of this issue. It’s much more complicated than finding a military veteran who’s living on the streets and offering him or her a bed for the night, leading to permanent housing.

This generational problem involves related concerns of mental health, substance abuse, social anxiety, shame, stigma, and a lack of coordinated resources. Because of these factors, it’s difficult to find homeless, unsheltered veterans who are willing to be helped.

“I couldn't get them to crack a smile much less start up a conversation,” Jim Chancellor told me after visiting a Lake County soup kitchen.

He was searching for homeless or struggling vets who need assistance of any kind.

“They have too much pride I guess,” he said.

Chancellor, a Vietnam War veteran from Lowell, is spearheading a creative new project in Northwest Indiana to assist a population of vets that can seem invisible to us. We know they’re here, but where? And are they open to public assistance?

“The hardest part of this project is finding them,” Chancellor said. “We can't help them if we can’t find them. Trust, or the lack of it, is what keeps the veteran on the street. I realize that some homelessness is by choice. We can't help everyone. But if a veteran trusts us then maybe they will talk to us, and the healing can begin.”

This project launched last month with little success but with the promise of helping more vets this month, starting Saturday. Instead of hoping that vets bring themselves to available resources, transportation has been redesigned to come to them. This is a notable difference between this new project and others I’ve written about.

It’s in partnership with the offices of the North Township trustee, the Calumet Township trustee and Lake County Superior Court Judge Julie Cantrell. On Saturday morning, buses will travel to specific locations in those townships to pick up vets in need.

“One weekend each winter month we will give our heroes a chance to get out of the cold, take a shower, eat hot meals and have a safe place to sleep,” Chancellor said.

The program’s overnight “base camp” is located inside the Calumet Township multipurpose center at 1900 W. 41st Ave. in Gary. When the vets arrive there they will be offered breakfast, a shower, new clothes, hygiene products, a movie to watch, a warm bed, and fellowship if they’re interested. There will be no lectures, no handout sheets, no programs to listen to.

On Sunday, they will be offered a nondenominational church service, another meal, and whatever else they may need. “If not, buses will take them back to where they were picked up and we will try it again in January,” Chancellor said.

Last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced veteran homelessness continues to decline, 2.1% this year, according to a new national estimate. According to this “point in time” estimate from January, Indiana has 572 homeless vets, with only 42 labeled as “unsheltered,” a 25% decrease since 2010. Illinois has 690 homeless vets with only 154 unsheltered, a 39% drop since 2010.

I don’t believe any of these figures. Many homeless vets have been ambushed by social circumstances they weren’t trained to combat. They remain camouflaged by shame, stigma, confusion and pride.

“The more I try to find these veterans the more I think there is some kind of culture among them, a camaraderie between them,” Chancellor said. “Some even have a swagger in their walk in the soup kitchen lines.”

This is especially true for older vets, dating back to the Vietnam era, according to retired U.S. Army Maj. Raymond Christian, a Gary native who now lives in Calumet City, Illinois.

“The Vietnam veterans returned home without a clue as to what had taken place with them and they were denied the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder until 20 years later. This is a reflection of their homelessness,” said Christian, who served in Afghanistan among other military locations.

“Keep in mind, Vietnam veterans returned home helpless and without assistance when it came for them to receive proper medical treatment or housing assistance. The Vietnam veterans were left out in the cold and are still suffering today,” he said.

Christian is so impassioned about this topic that he has written a book, “The Apology the United States Owes the Vietnam Veterans,” released this year.

“The lack of concern that was shown to the Vietnam veterans in 1970 will be repeated with the Afghanistan and Iraq soldiers as they return home, considering that each state feels not as obligated as others to help,” he said. “The ball was dropped and Vietnam veterans remain homeless. Will we repeat the cycle?”

The new project to help homeless or struggling vets, from any era, is designed with a no-pressure setup. No one will be in their face. Resources will be on hand, not forced upon them. Just a relaxing couple of days to provide a shelter from the storm of reality.

“We have had several phone calls, two from female veterans,” Chancellor said. “We are hoping for a dozen veterans this weekend.”

The pick-up locations for Saturday include: Greater Works Ministry, 5125 Hohman Ave. in Hammond, City Life Center, 225 W. 5th Ave. in Gary, Salvation Army, 513 W. Chicago Ave. in East Chicago, The Center, 7337 Kennedy Ave. in Hammond, Peace Baptist, 1201 Chase St. in Gary, and Veterans Life Changing Service, 501 Ridge Road in Gary. (For more info or to receive help, call Chancellor at 219-771-6243.)

“I believe we will have a better turnout every time with word of mouth from the people we help,” Chancellor said.

And, I hope, from you.

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