After six years, the annual Operation Stand Down to assist and educate veterans has been deemed successful enough that its mission is considered accomplished and the event will be discontinued, organizers said.
The event jointly hosted by local police agencies, area high schools and the Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission provided clothing and offered medical and dental assessments, legal and housing assistance, job placement, and other services to veterans and dependent family members. At the end of each event, veterans and their families were provided with a new or gently used coat.
Organizers say that while the outreach program and other efforts have reduced homelessness and the number of veterans seeking services, need still exists. The focus will now change to a more targeted approach.
That means providing support on a more individual, as-needed basis for veterans considered at risk of homelessness, said Mike Peck, superintendent of the Lake County Veterans Assistance Commission. Heading off problems that lead to homelessness, rather than housing veterans in temporary shelters, is the emphasis, he added.
Unemployment can be a risk factor, Peck and others said, but so is being behind on mortgage or rent payments, or living paycheck to paycheck just above the poverty level and not qualifying for assistance if something unexpected happens.
"We need to do more than a Stand Down once a year," he said.
Officials say the number of veterans seeking assistance through the VAC has dropped from 335 per month in 2012 to about 100 per month now. Peck noted "the same 200 people" participated in the Stand Down the last few years.
Officials have determined that rather than a once-a-year event, those veterans are better aided with ongoing assistance, such as through the Midwest Veterans Closet, which emerged after last year's Stand Down to provide clothing on a daily basis. The VAC provides a shuttle service from the VAC homeless shelter at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center to the nearby Midwest Veterans Closet, which has enhanced the availability of assistance.
Peck said there are 4,000 unemployed veterans in Lake County. With only 600 seeking employment, many are at risk and outreach and cooperative efforts between local, state and federal agencies is key to letting those veterans know assistance is available, he said.
The VAC now has three locations, including the Veterans Closet, and does at least four job fairs a year, he noted. It also gets referrals from township offices and the dozens of veteran service organizations in Lake County.
One effort that will continue is the winter clothing drive, he added.
It began more than a decade ago when Vernon Hills police led by Deputy Chief Jon Petrillo began supplying homeless veterans with coats paid for by an anonymous donor. In 2011, after the donor dropped out because of the economy, Petrillo connected the cause to two rival high school football games in Lake County.
The 2015 program includes support of more than a dozen police departments and high school football teams, with proceeds going to the Midwest Veterans Closet. Coats will be collected at seven games, beginning Sept. 18 with Lakes Community High School hosting Grant High School in Antioch and Warren hosting Mundelein in Gurnee.
"This is not just a Vernon Hills project," Petrillo said. "It's a big victory and it's working," he added.
The effort also educates the next generation about the cost of conflict, Petrillo said.
Added to the mix this year is Medal of Honor recipient and Gurnee resident Allen J. Lynch.
On Dec. 15, 1967, Lynch was an Army specialist 4th Class serving as a radio telephone operator near the village of My An in Vietnam when his unit came under fire. He single-handedly rescued three wounded soldiers and defended them against enemy attack. For his gallantry and risk above and beyond the call of duty, Lynch was awarded the Medal of Honor by then-President Richard Nixon.
The Allen J. Lynch Medal of Honor Veterans Foundation was established in 2012 to provide assistance in the form of a gift intended as a one-time measure. On Sept. 25, Lynch will host the inaugural "Swingin' for the Vets" golf outing at Midlane Country Club in Waukegan.
"People have needs all year long. If you take care of these needs all year long, there's not the need for a Stand Down," he said. His foundation is meant as a stopgap and the last place veterans go for help.
"If their needs are not able to be met by the county, we may be able to step in," Lynch said.
Despite losing 13,000 veterans the last eight years, Lake County is fourth in Illinois in veteran population at 35,000, according to Peck.