Speaking with veterans in the common room of Chicago’s newest shelter, whole decades pass by in mumbles and couched phrases.
But for the most part, the story skips from a tank column in the Saudi desert, or a base in South Korea, to the day they showed up at this transitional housing shelter that officially opened three weeks ago in the South Shore neighborhood.
The new shelter nearly doubles the number of transitional beds available to homeless veterans in the city from 52 to 90, said Abraham House-El, a caseworker for the homeless, and himself a recovered alcoholic. The focus here is on the transitional – meaning House-El hopes to see his clients with work uniforms and keys to apartments within three to six months of their arrival.
“Some people are looking for entitlement, and, as veterans, these men are entitled to some things,” House-El said. “But we are weeding out and looking for people who want to help themselves.”
The shelter, called FORT II, is a cooperative effort between Featherfist, a homeless outreach group that has worked in Chicago since 1984, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some 140,000 veterans are homeless in the United States on any given night, according to department estimates.
Two years ago, Congress enacted reforms after revelations surfaced of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The initial furor resulted in a streamlined process for rehabilitating and providing stabilization to veterans. Forms and requests now turn around in “days; a week at most – not months,” House-El said.
“As a caseworker, it’s rewarding to me because I get to see the whole process through,” he added. “Of course, there are some who don’t succeed but my policy is to never give up on someone.”
Veterans Affairs teamed with Featherfist to identify those who meet certain qualifications in their ability to work and the length of their homelessness. Featherfist then brings them in to work with a team of case managers. The armed services pay the shelter under a relatively new per diem program.
The three veterans scattered around the basement lobby of the shelter are members of what House-El calls the new school bunch. All three have dropped in and out of VA offices for years, describing what they called a “take-a-number approach” to the help provided with them.
“It’s easy to get lost,” said Dwayne Wolford, 40. “This place puts some focus on the vet, on the individual.”
Veterans Affairs officials diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder after his short stint in the Iraqi desert, having served with a tank battalion; his persistent alcoholism attributed to the stress. The next 15 years, he said, can be described as chronic homelessness.
Wolford had trouble even walking into a Walgreen’s and asking for an application until a couple of weeks ago, after encouragement by caseworkers. All three men described joining the armed forces to escape perceived dangers in Chicago: gangs, drugs, boredom.
“Basically, gangs are like a pack of hyenas always chasing you down,” said Eric Young-El, 38, who described a life caught between gang members suspicious of his reluctance to join and a rough home life. “I was like, ‘Why not try this out?’ So I signed my life on the dotted line.”
Young-El said he provided mostly support services to other troops but the whole time wanted to come back. Once in the service, all three were stricken with homesickness and apprehension when the Army shipped them abroad.
“I didn’t want to go to Germany. It seemed so far away, and the people there couldn’t speak to me; it wasn’t anything like I thought it would be,” Wolford said.
All three did their four years and then came back to the Chicago area, where the situation only worsened. Remius Parker, 43, had trouble holding down multiple jobs in security and with the U.S. Postal Service as his situation became unbearable. He became homeless this March.
“You just suffer,” he said. “I felt like I was better off on the street. But then I felt like I had no control, like I was constantly being tested.”
In their short time in the shelter, the three veterans said they feel more self-assured after compulsory computer training and job search programs.
“I understand most of these organizations where workers lose their compassion and you’re just a number – seems to me they truly give a damn about us here,” Parker said of FORT II.
But the new center has a distinctly professional and cerebral aesthetic. Quotes of philosophers, for instance, line the walls of the nondescript building at East 72nd Street and South Blackstone Avenue. The quotes don’t exude a sense of unbound optimism. One reads: “When a person tells you, ‘I’ll think it over and let you know,’ you know.”
As the center’s director, Anewishki developed this matter-of-fact approach to outreach after decades in the field.
“People have needs, and we tend to those needs. But being homeless can quickly become a full-time job all about that,” she said. “You know where to go each day to get what you need. So this takes away some of those needs and allows them to focus on other things.”