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updated: 12/5/2011 1:22 PM

Finding help for homeless veterans

Veterans worry about what Iraq War soldiers will face when they return

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  • Vietnam-era veteran Terry Barnes lives at the Midwest Shelter of Homeless Veterans in Wheaton. He served in the Marines from 1975-1979. Barnes currently works as a chef at Edward Hines Jr. VA hospital in Hines and was planning to move into an apartment Dec. 1.

       Vietnam-era veteran Terry Barnes lives at the Midwest Shelter of Homeless Veterans in Wheaton. He served in the Marines from 1975-1979. Barnes currently works as a chef at Edward Hines Jr. VA hospital in Hines and was planning to move into an apartment Dec. 1.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Terry Barnes

      Terry Barnes

 
 

When Terry Barnes finished his military service in 1979, he came home, married his high school sweetheart, had two children, bought a house and, as he says, started to live happily ever after.

But after losing his wife, his job and his battle with sobriety over the past few decades, Barnes, 54, found himself homeless, joining the ranks of thousands of homeless veterans around the country.

In June, Barnes, a former Marine, hit bottom while hospitalized at Hines VA Hospital. But after nearly five months at the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, the Chicago native is getting ready to move out on his own. He's back at Hines, but now it's for a job working as a chef, cooking for other veterans who have been through similar struggles.

"We all have so much in common and so much fellowship just having served," he said. "Now I'm turning around and serving other veterans, and it's an awfully good feeling."

But as the economy continues to falter and more soldiers return home as the Iraq War comes to an end, experts expect the number of homeless veterans to grow.

An estimate on the number of homeless veterans in the Chicago area is difficult to come by, as situations can change daily. [URL]However, according to a 2009 Veterans Affairs study, 136,000 veterans nationwide spent at least one night in a shelter or transitional housing.

Also, a homelessness study from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs found that, in 2010, 13,000 of the nation's 660,000 homeless -- which number more than 660,000, according to a 2008 HUD report -- were ex-service members between ages 18 and 30, emphasizing the prominence of homelessness among young veterans.

There are more than 75 nonprofits in the Chicago area trying to end homelessness or help veterans, but with no central location to deal with veterans' needs, the process of finding help can be confusing. The Veterans Affairs department or county veterans assistance commissions can help with referrals.

Why vets struggle

Although homelessness is a concern for the general population, veterans face unique struggles, said Bob Adams of Winfield, who served in Vietnam as a Navy hospital corpsman in the early 1970s and is the founder of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans.

"They went away to combat and came home a different person," said Adams, who is now a licensed clinical social worker. He added that he believes one in every three homeless men is a veteran.

Barnes describes coming home from deployment as "almost like a culture shock."

Reassimilating into society, Barnes said, is "a hard process for a lot of people."

The economy has played a role in the increasing number of homeless veterans, said Brian Rowlind of A Safe Haven, a social service agency in Chicago. Struggling to make home payments, finding jobs and using their skills in the workforce are common complaints.

Rowlind also said that post-traumatic stress disorder compounds those economic issues, leading some to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.

The stigma of homelessness can also create a cycle that is difficult to break.

"There are a lot of intelligent, well-mannered people that have just become displaced," Barnes said. "Anyone could be one paycheck away from being homeless."

Another veteran, Joe Page of Chicago, became homeless in September after his brother's home, where he had been staying, went into foreclosure.

Page was drafted into the Army in 1972 and went to Germany to train as a helicopter pilot. In 1973, before he was able to be sent to Vietnam, Page was injured in an accident with a tank and was no longer able to serve.
After he came home, he worked for car companies and as a truck driver until a need for hip surgery forced him to stop.

"I had never been homeless in my life," Page said of the moment he lay in the hospital recovering from surgery, knowing he had nowhere to go once he was discharged. "I was scared; I didn't know what I was going to do for the night."

Within four hours of asking for help that day in September, he was taken to A Safe Haven, where he still lives, recovering, taking classes and preparing to be on his own again.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes the struggle veterans face, said Eugene Herskovic, VA homeless coordinator for the Great Lakes region.

He said that among the things Veterans Affairs focuses on is preventing homelessness, handling substance abuse and dealing with veterans who have been in jail. The agency is also trying to create resources for female veterans.

A national call center has been set up in recent years, Herskovic said.

"We're trying to make a dent," Herskovic said, acknowledging the growing struggle.

Motivated to help

Bob Adams couldn't wait for more federal services to become available.

After a friend committed suicide 30 years to the day after a firefight they went through together in Vietnam, and after seeing homeless veterans on the streets, he felt he had to do something.

Along with Winfield resident Dirk Enger, a Gulf War Marine Corps veteran, Adams opened the Midwest Shelter in Wheaton in 2007, where he is able to help about a dozen veterans a year, including Barnes.

The shelter offers help with financial management, employment and computer skills and teaches residents everything from cooking to coping with conflict.

As a new generation of soldiers prepares to come home, Adams said he is worried about the issues they'll face.

"We've been calling it a Katrina-like storm coming our way, these young men coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan," Adams said. "They will have the same issues other veterans faced, but these men and women have forms of PTSD so intense it's like nothing I've ever seen before."

However, veterans coming home today find much more support from the general population than in the past.
"In my war, the country confused the war with the warriors and didn't treat us very well when we came home," Adams said of his experience returning from Vietnam. "A lot has changed since then, and this country doesn't make that mistake anymore."

Looking back, Barnes sees how his military service both helped and hurt him along his journey.

"Coming straight out of high school, I was not prepared for some of the things I saw, heard and experienced," he said. "I've seen some things that other people never will, or should, see in their lives. I just went with the flow like everyone else."

He said part of that attitude might have led to his drinking and not knowing how to handle what he saw overseas.

However, when Barnes found himself on hard times, his Marine training kicked in and helped him focus and care for himself.

"It's just like, 'OK, this is the situation you're in, deal with it. Do not let it get the best of you,'" Barnes said. "There is no laying down, there is no quitting; you must keep going."

More help coming

Barnes encourages other veterans to ask for help when they need it.

"We're here for you. If you need help, reach out," Barnes said. "You don't have to go through it alone."
Although many organizations are working to end homelessness, resources are still limited.

Midwest Shelter is the only shelter for homeless veterans in DuPage County. Veterans in other counties can go to mainstream shelters such as PADS for help, but without a clear central location, veterans may struggle to find the help they need.

However, in July, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced nearly $60 million in grants to 85 nonprofit agencies around the country to help with veteran homelessness as part of a new Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. Two Chicago organizations received grant funding: $429,722 for Thresholds and $719,400 for Volunteers of America.

Volunteers of America will use the money to help build a new facility for homeless veterans and assist others with security deposits, rent payments and other costs of living, said Carlton Evans, homeless coordinator for the organization.

Jennifer Hill, executive director of the Suburban Cook County Alliance to End Homelessness, said she is encouraged by the momentum on the issue, especially with thousands of soldiers set to head home soon.

There is even focus being placed on a plan between organizations and the VA to end veteran homelessness in five years. "We know that's ambitious, but we know we have to strive for that because it's unacceptable for someone who served this country to come back and be homeless," Hill said.

As for Barnes, nearly a year after becoming homeless, he's ready to start a new life with a positive attitude.
"If nothing else, it's strengthened me," Barnes said. "I'm getting a second chance."

Barnes said he will always be a Marine and is proud to have served his country.

"I'm a veteran every day. Semper Fi till the day I die."

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