Disabled veteran and former Austin resident Homer Bizzle, 33, started America Cares Too with one goal: to help the veterans in Illinois.
But just seven months after the grand opening of the nonprofit’s office in Forest Park, he’s run into some roadblocks. Grants are out there for such small, veteran service centers, but the process of applying for and receiving them has been a challenge, Bizzle said.
The grant process is relatively complicated, Bruce Parry, chair of Chicago-based Coalition of Veterans Organizations, explained. For smaller service centers, Parry maintains those agencies might not have staff skilled fo grant writing.
“There is funding, but it’s difficult for smaller groups,” he said.
Since his organization’s inception, Bizzle has submitted applications to several entities. He’s reached out to the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township and Proviso Township in Cook County, and even to the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs scratch-off lottery grant program.
But so far, Bizzle’s been mostly unsuccessful.
“Everybody is trying to get funding for their mission,” he said. “We’ve got so much grant funding out here, it’s like you have to play the political game to get funding.”
Parry added that it’s not uncommon for small veteran centers to run into the bureaucracy that comes with the grant process. And, according to Bizzle, it also seems as though federal and state funds for veterans aren’t trickling down to the local level.
“If you go on the street corners, you’ll see some veterans homeless, and it’s sad,” Bizzle said. “You’ve got a Hines VA right up the street, then you got Jesse Brown VA (Medical Center) not that far from here. Where’s all the funding going? That’s my question.”
Maureen Dyman, spokesperson for the Hines VA in Maywood, said she doesn’t agree that there’s a lack of resources for veterans in the area. Instead, linking veterans to those resources, and having them take advantage of what’s available, is a challenge, Dyman said.
She mentioned One Team Chicago and Illinois Joining Forces that work to connect local service providers with each other. That way, more agencies can work together and know where to refer veterans.
Bizzle started his nonprofit in 2011.
Located at 7440 W. Harrison in Forest Park, it began as a chartered national veteran’s service organization. It currently offers veteran peer counseling, computer classes and resume-writing workshops, as well as housing and shelter referrals and a food pantry. America Cares Too also helps former armed forces members obtain their VA benefits and enroll into the medical system.
The VA hasn’t worked much with America Cares Too, Dyman said, but it has referred a few veterans to Bizzle for his computer typing programs. Dyman adds that Bizzle has flyers up at the VA informing veterans about his food pantry.
Bizzle is the nonprofit’s leading force, and most of its expenses come out of his own pocket. Some members of his board help with costs while Bizzle holds fundraisers. He has secured some partnerships with PADS, a housing shelter in Oak Park, and Thrive Counseling Center, also located in Oak Park. He also receives support from Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS.
Bizzle works about 30 hours per week for the organization. That’s on top of his main job as human relations representative at the Illinois Department of Human Services. He lives in Bellwood but was born and raised in Austin near Pine Avenue and Madison Street.
The former Austin resident graduated from Governors State University with an undergraduate degree in liberal arts and received a master’s degree from Northeastern Illinois University in inner city studies education. In 2004, he enlisted in the Army.
He worked his way up to the rank of first lieutenant. In 2007, during training, Bizzle said he was injured when he fell off a Light Tactical Vehicle in the United States. He was eventually discharged in 2012 and prefers not to talk about the injuries he sustained.
During his service Bizzle received the Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Army Service Medal, according to information provided by the Army’s public affairs office.
He’s currently working on a second master’s in government contracting from Webster University. He said he hopes the degree will help him secure more government contracts for veterans.
His nonprofit serves at least a dozen veterans from the western Cook County suburbs, including North Riverside, Bellwood and Hillside, but it’s open to veterans from anywhere in the state, Bizzle said.
“Once I help a veteran, I want that veteran to help another veteran like a chain reaction,” he said.