Astronaut James Lovell helps work to address homelessness among veterans
By FRANK S. ABDERHOLDEN | Lake County News-Sun, Gurnee, Ill. | Published: July 3, 2019
LIBERTYVILLE, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Did veteran homelessness really come to an end in Lake County?
Veterans still find themselves without housing in the county, but through a collaborative effort between the Lake County Coalition for the Homeless, Lake County government and the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, officials say a safety net is in place to identify and provide help for any veteran calling the streets home.
Lake County became the second such designated community in the state — Rockford was first — and just the 10th community nationwide.
Since 2015, the partners have worked to double down on quickly housing veterans, improving coordination among service providers and providing innovative solutions to barriers that were keeping veterans homeless, according to Sue Shimon, president of the Lake County Coalition for the Homeless.
"Four years ago, the coalition joined the Build for Zero campaign and we committed to ending veterans homelessness," Shimon said. "We pulled together and invited new partners, and we got to work. We developed systems for data sharing so that veterans care is coordinated across providers.
"We doubled down, and we continually improve our methods in order to minimize the amount of time that veterans are without housing."
The effort was certified by both the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the national non-profit Built for Zero organization by meeting certain standards and criteria.
Former homeless veterans Christopher Richard and Matt Pritt also certified the effort by talking about their experiences and how they are now succeeding in putting their lives back together after addictions led them to the streets.
"I'm an Air Force veteran, and I got into a situation where I was homeless and sleeping under a tree, and I didn't know what to do," said Richard, 50, of Waukegan. "I walked to (the Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago) and they treated me like family."
At a celebration Tuesday in Libertyville at the county's permit facility meeting room, Richard stood and grew emotional telling his story, getting everyone to laugh when he said if he named all the people that helped him it would take up the entire afternoon.
He had gone to a homeless walk-in center at the health care center, and he was put up in a hotel for five days with two bags of groceries over Labor Day weekend in 2017. Afterwards, he received transitional housing at the health care center until he was ready to move into his own apartment in Waukegan.
Richard said he feels he is back on track as he draped his arm around the shoulders of Shelly Hamilton, his fiancée, after the meeting.
"It saved my life," he said of the programs that helped him kick alcohol, find work and then an apartment.
"It was such a gift that so many people helped me," Richard added. "I don't want to hide anything from anybody, because I want (other veterans) to know what caused my problems, and maybe that can help them out."
Pritt was an engineer for the U.S. Army who fell into addiction, and when he was discharged in 2011, he found that some part of him was missing.
"I had these feelings and I couldn't get them out," he said, adding that he "didn't have family or friends who I could talk to about the experiences," so he spiraled into addiction and alcoholism.
Pritt received treatment at the health care center and then got into a transitional housing program in North Chicago, about a quarter mile away from where he needed to go for treatment and other services.
"They gave me a family feeling. They helped me build the foundation for the life I am building," he said.
Pritt added that he had to relearn some simple tasks like keeping things clean, being on time, being accountable.
"That plays a big part of life," he said, noting that he also helped with the maintenance of the transition home he stayed at with other veterans.
"I'm forever grateful for this program and this family. I turned my life around and I found life again," he said.
Terri Washburn, a U.S. Navy veteran, found her way to the Lovell Federal Health Care Center and now she works for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's VA Supported housing where she helps other veterans who are just like she used to be — homeless.
"It's pretty nice that I'm working for them after they helped me," said the Mount Pleasant, Wis., resident. The program actually assists veterans in Lake and McHenry counties in Illinois, and Kenosha County, Wis.
"I can give other veterans insight, because I've been there, I know the veteran's side, and I come at them as a veteran. They feel comfortable with me because of that. and they all have my phone number if they need it," she said. "It's a wonderful program."
The accolades from politicians came from the federal level to the county level.
Sandy Hart, Lake County Board chairman, said she was honored to stand with people who work tirelessly to ensure the veterans have a place to live. She added that no one should worry about their next meal, wander the streets in life-threatening weather, or live without a roof over their heads.
"These brave men and women fought for our country, protecting us and our families. Making sacrifices most of us cannot even imagine. Now it's our privilege to serve them," Hart said.
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Deerfield, attended and called the achievement "extraordinary" because all those who put on the uniform and stand guard at the gate of Naval Station Great Lakes in North Chicago, or in some place far away on a ship or at a base deserve respect.
"All those veterans who serve need to know we have their backs when they come home, and we are demonstrating that today," said Schneider. Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth also sent their congratulations.
Shimon, president of the homeless coalition, said ending veteran homelessness doesn't mean veterans no longer face challenges. "Rather, it means that a coordinated system of care has been established that connects homeless veterans to housing and services, effectively ending their homeless status soon after they've been identified," she said.
"Since the beginning of our efforts, the coalition's partner agencies have been working together to build a seamless system of care for homeless veterans," Shimon added. "Strong, trusting relationships in the community were foundational to achieve the goal of ending veteran homelessness in Lake County."
Also at the event was former astronaut Capt. James A. Lovell, after whom the health care center is named. "I'm pleased to be here today to honor the hard work, dedication and collaboration efforts of all the organizations represented here for this important milestone," he said.
Lovell talked about the troubles he and his crewmates had on Apollo 13 when an oxygen tank exploded and they were relying on people back on the ground to come up with innovative solutions to their problems. He likened this group to those who helped him, only they are helping other veterans in need.
"Sometimes these things happen, and they will continue to happen. But when the veterans are identified as homeless in Lake County, there is now a safety net to help them get help like health care and other vital resources," Lovell said.
"They come up with innovative solutions that literally save the lives of veterans," Lovell added. "Their contributions are just as significant as those that saved my life during the mission. I salute all of you."
©2019 Lake County News-Sun (Lake County, Ill.)
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