Navy Veteran Joseph Yadron, dressed smartly in suit and tie, approached the podium, looked out at the supportive crowd of more than 150 in Lovell Federal Health Care Center’s Bourke Hall, and told his compelling story of homelessness and recovery.
“I became homeless due to a long, long fight with unmedicated mental illness,” he said. “I felt alone, worthless and on the brink of suicide.”
If not for the extensive help from Lovell FHCC, community partners and local homeless advocates, said Yadron, “I would have been dead in September of 2007. Through the programs in VA, I am now a self-sustaining, clear-thinking individual living on my own. And, for this, I thank you all.”
“Don’t forget why we are here …,” said Yadron. “We are here for the homeless Veterans like me, who need someone who believes they can be more and they can make it.”
Lovell FHCC’s annual Homeless Veterans Summit, Feb. 26, set the stage for attendees to collaborate toward VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s goal to end Veterans homelessness by the end of fiscal year 2015.
“Lovell FHCC is committed to ending Veteran homelessness,” said Navy Capt. José Acosta, Lovell’s deputy director and commanding officer, in his opening remarks. “It’s part of our core business here, helping Veterans … We’ve adopted the VA’s ‘no wrong door’ policy.”
“No wrong door” means that all Veterans seeking to prevent or exit homelessness must have easy access to programs and services, Acosta said.
In the afternoon, Lovell FHCC representatives engaged in a panel discussion with community members involved in helping homeless Veterans and Veterans at risk of becoming homeless. And in the summit’s final hour, a resource fair provided a connection opportunity to Veterans, social workers, advocates, health care professionals, and others who serve Veterans and their families in Southeast Wisconsin and Northeast Illinois.
Panel members included: Acosta, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, Jr.; Dr. V. Chowdary Jampala, head of mental health programs at Lovell FHCC; Licensed social worker Bill Flood, head of homeless programs at Lovell FHCC; Katie Tuten, chair for the Illinois Joining Forces homelessness and housing working group and a project manager with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago; and Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Erica Borggren.
Borggren spoke about Illinois Joining Forces, a statewide public-private network of organizations that serve Veterans and military members and their families. She encouraged all who seek to help Veterans to sign up for IJF, to aid in centralizing the efforts of the many governmental and non-profit groups. “So we can be smarter about all the work we are doing,” she explained, “to better help Veterans navigating the system.”
IJF, led by IDVA and the Illinois National Guard, currently has 180 members in the state.
“It’s overwhelming how much is out there, even to us, the ones who are providing the services. This navigation of the sea of goodwill is probably one of the biggest issues,” Borggren said in her speech, noting that Veterans may get overwhelmed and not know where to turn for help.
Borggren summarized the role of the state VA and other state agencies, to include the Illinois Department of Employment Security and how both agencies partner to help Veterans with employment, housing and applying for benefits.
Flood outlined Lovell FHCC’s homeless Veterans program and the recently opened Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans in the main hospital facility in North Chicago. He said Lovell FHCC works closely with the Lake County Veteran’s Assistance Commission to place Veterans in emergency and temporary housing. He estimated Lovell will serve about 500 homeless Veterans during a 3-year period that began in 2013.
The formal part of the summit ended on a high note, with the audience giving a standing ovation following a story told by formerly homeless Army Veteran Glen Simmons.
A former truck driver, Simmons’ fortunes changed in a day when he suffered congestive heart failure 12 years ago. Subsequent medical issues kept him from working; he couldn’t afford his home of 14 years, and a cycle of temporary housing and homelessness followed.
“My emotional distress was astounding,” Simmons said. “But I didn’t let anyone know.”
Three things saved him. First, Simmons found emergency housing through the Interfaith Network Nightly Shelters program in Kenosha, Wis. Secondly, he was treated by “a wonderful team of doctors [and] nurses at Lovell FHCC … Instead of just a number on the job, I was treated as an individual.” The third saving grace came when a fellow Veteran suggested he look into all the benefits offered by VA. Since then, he has secured permanent housing through Lovell’s homeless program; participated in the center’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program, and started a part-time job with the shelters program in Kenosha.
Simmons concluded his remarks with what he most wanted to tell Veterans: “There are people and programs awaiting them.”
Jayna Legg has been a public affairs specialist at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center for three years. She is an Army Gulf War Veteran. She was commissioned a 2nd Lt. from Army ROTC at the University of Illinois, and then served on active duty and in the Illinois Army National Guard and Army Reserve, retiring as a Lt. Col. after 25 years of service. In the Army, she was a signal corps officer, command and general staff college instructor, and public affairs officer. She also is a former newspaper reporter and editor.