Homeless for years, Army vet helps others while continuing his recovery
The modest house on a side street in North Chicago where Army veteran Matt Pritt lives represents much more than a place to sleep and shelter from the elements.
Pritt was homeless for years, and the house has become his temporary but crucial link in a long and difficult fight. It's also an opportunity to help fellow veterans facing similar issues.
Whether volunteering at the gym every weekday or working with other resident veterans, Pritt gives back to the program that has helped him get on track.
"The TR (transitional residence) program was the turning point in my life," says Pritt, whose one-year "clean date" last month came on his 35th birthday.
The Compensated Work Therapy Transitional Residence Program program offered through the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center is for veterans with addictive disorders, mental illness and/or homelessness who need help readjusting to life and returning to the mainstream.
For a long time, Pritt didn't have that inclination. The Indiana native joined the Army in 2008 and served as a specialist with operating engineers in what is known as horizontal construction.
One assignment, he said, was repairing roads in Mexico damaged by drug cartels.
Pritt says his military service caused a lot of issues and his marriage fell apart.
"To numb the feelings and the pain, I turned to drugs and alcohol," he said.
After being discharged from the Army in 2011, Pritt wound up homeless.
His family had given up and he had no friends. He said he finally "got sick of being sick" and sought a permanent answer.
"I didn't have any support at all," he said. "I knew I would end up dead or homeless forever."
Having successfully completed a treatment program for heroin abuse just over a year ago, Pritt came to Lovell's transitional residence program, according to Stephanie James, supervisor for outpatient homeless programs.
"This was his third admission to our program and we knew right away that something was different about this admission," she said. Pritt didn't let legal issues ín Indiana impact his recovery or dedication to the program or to other veterans he was always willing to help and support, she added.
James said she asked Pritt to become a house manager, a volunteer role he assumed a few weeks ago.
"They are live-in staff and provide services to the program and the veterans who are patients in the residential program in exchange for free room and board," she said.
Managers make sure residents know and are following the rules and that the house is clean and free of temptations among other duties. He lives in the house with two veterans but it can hold up to six people.
"This program, you create a family here. It makes you feel like you're part of something meaningful," Pritt said. "I don't put myself above or below anybody. It's a way of giving back," he added.
Pritt has a passion for fitness -- he says it has helped in his recovery and built self-confidence -- and he is pursuing certification as a physical trainer. He volunteers from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. every weekday at the only gym on the Lovell campus.
He cleans and readies the equipment and does other tasks while providing assistance to those who need it. That can mean explaining how the equipment works or best can be used to attain desired results. But not all the talk is about fitness.
The gym is open to veterans who are enrolled in health care at the center and is considered a wellness program, according to Kim Skorupa, a registered kinesiotherapist for physical medicine and rehabilitation. Pritt has become a welcome part.
"He's a good example and a good motivator to myself and others to do better," she said. "People comment all the time."