Marvin McGee served in the elite U.S. Army Special Forces in the early 1980s, but he was homeless and struggling with addiction before he came to Hope Manor, a housing facility in East Garfield Park.
"I got therapy… I have schooling at night; I have church, and that's a lot on my plate," McGee, 50, said.
"But the thing I've found out is that what's keeping me busy is keeping me sober," McGee added. "I've been clean now since February 11, and that's been the most beautiful feeling in the world. I've never felt like this in my life."
McGee is one of nearly 100 residents taking advantage of Hope Manor's studio and suite apartments. He and other residents also utilize its supportive, job training and community outreach programming. Hope Manor development is run by Volunteers of America Illinois. On April 25, the organization broke ground on Hope Manor II in Englewood, a new facility for homeless female veterans.
But despite strong support from the Englewood community for the project, some Chicagoans have reservations about bringing a vulnerable population into a neighborhood notorious for violence, substance abuse and gang activity.
Hope Manor, which opened in January 2012, has worked to help a population in need.
More than 1,100 veterans in Illinois are homeless, out of roughly 14,300 homeless individuals statewide, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly 63,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night, according to a 2012 HUD estimate. Another 1.4 million veterans are at risk for becoming homeless due to factors like poverty, lack of support networks and sub-par living conditions, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Hope Manor residents must complete a psychosocial evaluation to determine if they're a suitable match for the facility and its services. The building has 50 units, 30 of which are studios. The rest are divided between two- and three-bed suites.
Those residing in the studio apartments, which are Section 8 project-based voucher units, may stay as long as they qualify and pay their portion of the rent. But anyone living in a roommate situation must become independent and move out within two years.
Nearly every bed in Hope Manor is filled.
Honoring vets with support
Hope Manor is a way to honor veterans and their service, said Brandon Crow, the facility's chief program officer and director of clinical services. The manor, he added, also supports homeless vets move toward independence.
"I think a misconception is that homelessness is all about money, having it or not having it, and that's not always true," Crow said. "It's not always the change in the pocket that's the issue; it's something about the ways in which they manage what they do have."
Male and female veterans both deal with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and poverty. Yet, female veterans require additional considerations, including that some may have been sexually assaulted, either within the military or while they were homeless. They might also have dependent children.
Crow said Hope Manor was originally intended to be a mixed-gender facility, but those plans were halted for several reasons, including female veterans' own sense of safety in a largely male environment. Hope Manor II is expected to provide housing and supportive services for more than 70 veteran-headed households.
Current Hope Manor residents said they were grateful for the opportunity to start over and get back on their feet.
"When I came here, I really felt out of place," McGee recalled. "And now I'm seeing beautiful things around me."
Larry Bryant, 54, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, lived in a Garfield Park church for five years before coming to Hope Manor in the summer of 2012. Bryant, who regularly uses the facility's computers and library, called Hope Manor "wonderful" and that he's found a good camaraderie with the other residents.
Scouting a welcoming community
Hope Manor almost didn't come to Garfield Park. The original site was slated for the 28th Ward, at the time represented by Ald. Ed Smith, who retired in 2010. A vocal community group resisted the project, and, according to Crow, Smith withdrew his support "pretty much at the last minute."
Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th) said he leaped at the chance to have Hope Manor in his ward, and that his constituents were thrilled to welcome the facility.
"[Hope Manor] gives [veterans] a step up," he said. "The community thinks it's a great thing. A lot of people have siblings and relatives who are veterans, and they want to help them live on their own."
When Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) heard that Hope Manor II was looking for a new site, she fought hard to bring it to Englewood, according to Debbie Blair, Thompson's chief of staff.
"The project is a very welcome entity into the 16th Ward," Blair said. "The residents are just excited about being able to provide for people who have provided for us."
In Garfield Park, Hope Manor residents have become involved in the community. Several residents last summer volunteered at a backpack drive at Morton Elementary School, which is across the street from Hope Manor.
"There is natural reward to getting outside yourself and helping other people," Crow said, adding that some of the vets — including those in wheelchairs — routinely patrol around Morton and help students cross the street.
Hope's staff and residents plan to host another backpack drive August and would like to do the same at an Englewood school.
Not everyone is convinced
Still, not everyone is convinced that Englewood is the right fit for veterans looking to distance themselves from patterns of substance abuse and violence.
"Hope Manor is a great idea in so many ways — you just have to look at it in a realistic view," said Rochelle Crump, president of National Women Veterans United.
"You're eager to house [homeless veterans] and that's great, but, long-term, are you hurting them or are you helping them, putting them back in that environment?" Crump, a former assistant director for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, asked.
Crump stressed that she admires Hope Manor's work, but is displeased with the locations on the west and south sides.
"They're trying to change the community, but right now, it's struggling with violence; they're struggling with unemployment…with poverty," she said. "You look at that and you're saying: how will you put more-or-less unhealthy people in an environment that is going to further delay their growth?"
McGee agreed that Englewood is a hard place to build a facility like the one that's helped him.
"I know that South Side area and I just do not see those people complying with the veterans," he said.
McGee was a longtime resident of Englewood and often returns to do youth outreach. His mother still lives there after more than 40 years. It was also in Englewood that McGee became addicted to heroin. He said he remains concerned about drugs getting into Hope Manor II.
"How're you going to get the veteran in and out of there without someone getting hurt or being off drugs?" he said. "When you get this transitional housing, you're fighting for your life then."
Crump also wonders what message it sends to house veterans in often-troubled neighborhoods.
"So when they become on the downside, do we say they're not worthy of living in those other communities?" Crump said. "We want to have parades for them, we want to say 'Woo woo, they served our country,' but then we don't allow them to live in the communities which would help them benefit life better."
Crow acknowledges that the decision to build Hope Manor II in Englewood was controversial. He noted that Hope Manor II has planned for an extensive security infrastructure, including a fenced-in green space just for residents, security cameras and 24-hour onsite security. But Crow stressed that the facility will not feel like a prison, and that Englewood might prove beneficial for the vets and community residents.
"We want to engage the people who live there in wanting to protect and patrol, and make sure they keep the space as nice as it is," he said.
The future: Brandon Crow, an administrator at Garfield Park's Hope Manor, a housing facility for homeless vets, looks out over the manor's green rooftop toward the Chicago skyline. The two-year old manor has plans to expand beyond the West Side.
The past: Hope Manor resident Marvin McGee, 50, spent many years living in Englewood and is concerned about building a new facility for homeless veterans there. "They have some nice places in the South Side, that just ain't one of them," he says.
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