Help for Heroes helps homeless veterans turn housing into a home
By JOANNA CONNORS | The Plain Dealer | Published: October 1, 2017
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — For as long as the world has had armies, it has sent soldiers off to war. And for as long as it has sent soldiers off to war, the world has had homeless veterans.
The oldest surviving work of Western literature, "The Iliad," tells the story of a war. The second-oldest tells the story of a veteran of that war who has been homeless for 10 years:
"I long for home, long for the sight of home," cries Odysseus, the hero of Homer's "The Odyssey," as he struggles to return to and reclaim his usurped home in Ithaca after the Trojan War. Homer composed the epic poem, scholars believe, near the end of the 8th century BC.
Some 2,800 years later, Lauralynn Hyatt, known to all as Charlie, heard that same deep yearning from homeless American veterans, and in that yearning she found her life's calling. She calls it Help for Heroes.
Turning houses into homes
Hyatt does not provide homeless veterans with housing. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made that need a priority with several programs. Hyatt helps the veterans turn the housing into a home, giving them furniture and other household goods not covered by various government programs.
In the five years since she started Help for Heroes, Hyatt has helped furnish homes for 261 veterans. Word has spread. "When you help two, then five more call you," she said. She has a constant waiting list, which has grown to more than 17 at times.
Help for Heroes is an incorporated, non-profit charity, but it remains what Hyatt calls a mom-and-pop operation.
Hyatt, with her husband and her daughter pitching in, runs it on a shoestring, using her personal cell phone, her Facebook page, a couple of rented storage units, and a well-worn 1993 Chevy box truck with 200,000 miles on the odometer, a broken gas gauge, no air conditioning and tires that will need replacing soon. Hyatt and her husband hold it together with hope, worry, and, lately, a couple of bungee cords.
Hyatt bought the truck three years ago with a $3,500 donation from the Columbia Station VFW Post 9340, where she and her husband are social members. The VFW continues to support Help for Heroes with raffles and fundraisers, which goes mostly toward gas.
Behind the wheel of that truck, Hyatt picks up donated, used furniture and housewares and delivers it to veterans who have just secured housing. Though a VA grant program supplies beds for many of the veterans, and other VA and charitable programs help with move-in kits, security deposits and utility assistance, furnishing their new home is for the most part up to the vets.
"Some of them have almost nothing," Hyatt said.
That was the case on a hot morning in mid-September, when a modern-day Odysseus stood on the front porch of a duplex not far from the Metroparks Zoo. Frank Holt, a 60-year-old Army veteran who served from 1975 to 1977, watched as the big truck lumbered to a stop across the street.
Charlie Hyatt drove; her husband, Mark Hyatt, sat shotgun. Charlie, a tiny woman of 56 who can lift her end of a bulky sofa and looks 20 years younger, jumped down and greeted Holt with a gleeful hug. "Thank you for your service, Frank," she said, a line almost as worn-out as her truck, but one that never sounds rote when she says it.
Mark, who calls himself his wife's vice president for heavy lifting, opened the truck's roll-up door. Inside, something like home awaited. They had a recliner upholstered in the soft, plush brown fabric of a stuffed bear. An enormous blue couch. A flat-screen television. A dresser. A glass-topped dinette set. An end table with an attached lamp. An ironing board and iron. A crock pot. Boxes of clothes. Two pairs of new shoes. Bedding.
The three set to work, carrying up the narrow staircase the makings of the first home Holt could call his own in -- well, he didn't really want to say how long he had been homeless, either staying with friends or living on the streets. It embarrassed him. After all, he'd worked and supported himself for more than 30 years, he said. In the Army, he was part of a high-tech special unit, working on ground-to-air missiles. After the Army, he became a certified auto technician.
He'd never used any of the services of the VA until a few months ago, when a cascade of problems -- job loss, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a bad back and finally homelessness -- brought him to the domiciliary at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center.
"For who I am, to have to fall into that," he said, pausing on the porch steps to wipe the sweat off his face and catch his breath. "It's just embarrassing. But so many people don't know how easy it is to fall into that."
Charlie Hyatt sat next to Holt on the porch, listening to him talk about his new place. He loved the fresh paint job and new carpeting his landlord installed. "I moved in about two-and-a-half months ago, and for the first five or six weeks I slept on the floor until I got a bed from the VA, so that carpet was a good thing," he said. "Other than that, I had very little."
Hyatt teared up, which happens fairly often when she talks about the veterans she calls "my guys."
A powerful bond with veterans
Hyatt's long string of thank-you's to veterans started at a bingo night more than five years ago at the VA.
As the daughter of an Army veteran and the sister of two Marine Corps veterans, she loved dropping in to her VFW to have a beer with the "old guys" when her husband, who works for NASA Glenn Research Center, was out of town for work.
That night, the old guys were heading out to host a bingo game with the veterans at the domiciliary, then located at the now-closed VA facility in Brecksville. They invited Charlie to go along to MC the game.
She had a blast, and it did not take long for her to see that the domiciliary -- a partnership between the VA and Volunteers of America -- housed homeless veterans, and that while the vets were given food, shelter and medical and social care, they didn't have everything they needed. At the end of the bingo game, a woman veteran approached her and whispered, "Charlie, do you think you're going to come back? I wanted to ask for a favor."
The woman's request changed the direction of Hyatt's life: "Could you possibly bring me some clothes?" All the veteran had was what she was wearing.
"Sweetheart," Charlie said, "I'll be back in a week and you will have clothes." Then she went around the room with a pad of paper, writing down everything the other veterans needed or wanted -- requests that ranged from root beer to body wash.
She kept it up, and after a few months of baking cookies for the veterans, shopping at the dollar store and delivering supplies, Charlie noticed one night that one of the veterans was not his usual upbeat self. When she asked him what was wrong, he told her he had found an apartment through the HUD-VASH program. "But I don't have a thing to move into my place," he said.
Charlie went straight home and contacted everyone she knew, asking for donations.
"This is disturbing," she wrote. "This is wrong. We need to help our veterans when they need help the most, moving into a new place."
Going all-in for the cause
After three years of running Help for Heroes and working full-time, Hyatt's husband urged her to quit her job. They did not need her income. She resisted: She had always worked, as a paralegal or as a bartender. Her very nickname, Charlie, came from working: When she tended bar in her 20s, "The drunks couldn't say Lauralynn, so they started calling me Charlie," she said.
"Babe, your passion is helping your veterans," Mark said to her. "This is where your heart is, and now you can do it full time."
Patricia James-Stewart, chief of the Domiciliary at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center, said Hyatt called her not long after she started Help for Heroes. "When you have people like Charlie, who call and say, 'I have this service and I want to make life easier for veterans,' it's such a blessing," she said. Now, case workers at both the domiciliary and the VA give veterans Hyatt's phone number.
When they call, Charlie tells them what she can offer: A sofa or futon, lamp and table, and chair for the living room. A bedroom dresser and night stand. A table and chairs. A TV and stand, a stereo if she has one. Dishes, flatware, pots and pans.
But, of course, she is offering much more than that. A lot of the veterans she has helped keep calling her, just to say hi and talk. On Mother's Day, her phone blows up with their messages.
"I think, if I was coming from the streets, what would I want? I'd want to be sitting on a couch, in front of my TV, with a homemade meal. So I give them what they need to have that," Hyatt said.
"I want them to feel like they're finally home."
To learn more about the VA's programs for homeless veterans, and how you can receive benefits or get involved, go to www.va.gov/HOMELESS/
To contact Charlie Hyatt with donations or for help, call 216-798-3224.
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