Special ReportThe New Illinois Veterans

Discharged, Then Homeless: A Harsh Reality for Vets

By Aziza Khamitova and Cassaundra Sampson

Posted: Friday, Nov. 22, 2013

In October of 2011, Meagan Washington-Sims returned home after serving in the armed forces for five years.

Shortly after returning, her mother died. Unable to cope with the death of her mother and the transition back into society, she lost her job.

“Nobody told me how stressful it would be, working a regular job with regular people,” Washington-Sims said. “Inside of me, I couldn’t handle it.”

Illinois has more than 10,000 homeless veterans, and the government can fund only 1 out of 10 veterans in need of services, according to Thresholds data obtained from the VA and Department of Defense.

Thresholds is a non-profit organization that has helped people with mental illnesses and poverty for 50 years. The organization realized that returning veterans needed to be targeted as an individual group for help, according to Lydia Zopf, director of the Veterans Project at Thresholds.

“Back in 2010, Brent from our external affairs department had this idea,” Zopf said. “We have so many soldiers that are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and we don’t know if the VA is able to meet all the needs that they have. We’ve been in the business of providing really good mental health services, so why don’t we target veterans as a special population.”

There are 764,203 veterans currently living in Illinois, according to Department of Veterans Affairs.

“About 75 percent [veterans] come to our program completely homeless,” Zopf said. “The other 25 percent are housed or at risk for losing their housing, and have really great mental health challenges that they need assistance.”

More than, 25 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan returning soldiers display Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is one of the main reasons for the high rate of homelessness, according to Volunteers of America Illinois.

The center networks with veteran shelters to house homeless veterans. Thresholds’ works with grant per diem sites, which have rooms or beds set aside for homeless veterans, Zopf said.

“That program is really hard because there’s not a lot options for women,” Zopf said. “A lot of shelters out in the community aren’t specialized for women veterans. And also not to mention that most women veterans have kids, and trying to find shelter for women and kids for homeless is really really hard, there’s just not a lot out there.”

About 13,000 new female veterans have returned and live in Illinois, and the number is expected to increase. Female veterans represent 18 percent of the new veteran population, but they represent 23 percent of new veterans with annual incomes under 20,000, according to New Veterans in Illinois: A Call To Action report.

Washington-Sims said she believes there’s a lack of programs focused on female at-risk veterans and hopes The Smith Residencies Home for Female Veterans can be an example for them.

“It started out that I wanted to help the homeless veteran females and their families mostly their children,” said Doll Smith, founder of the Smith Residences, “because I found out that there were a whole lot of female [veterans] not connected with their children, because a majority of shelters did not accommodate female veterans and their children.”

Three years ago, Smith drafted a proposal for the Smith Residences Veteran’s Village, a gated community for female veterans and their families. Then Cook County donated 96 former low-income townhouse units. The homes need reconstruction, but the organization wants to move its first family in by Dec. 15 of next year, Smith said.

Smith also mentors veterans, to help them avoid becoming homeless like Washington-Sims. Smith was introduced to Washington-Sims through her niece Marsha. With Smith’s guidance and support, Washington-Sim’s was able to move into her own apartment, attain two jobs and complete her Bachelor’s Degree as well as receive her disability compensation.

“We need help as veterans, not just going to the VA taking your meds and getting counseling,” Washington-Sims said. “It all starts at home in your center, and if your home life isn’t right, than everything else, you’re basically going nowhere fast.”

According to Zopf, Thresholds is also in the process of having special services for females veterans. They’re hoping to be able to separate it from the Veterans Project one day, and call it the Women’s Veterans Project.

“We saw there was a need for female veterans. We thought that this could be an opportunity where we could provide specialized services to female veterans,” Zopf said.

“I believe the organization is not going to stay small, I believe it is going to grow and grow,” Washington-Sims said.

Smith contacted Washington-Sims and offered her a position at Smith Residencies as an entry-level caseworker. Washington-Sims is excited to be able to help, when the organization is ready to take in female veterans.

“To be able to utilize my skills and give back and do what was meant to that means a lot to me,” Washington-Sims said. “To be able to share my story and encourage other people that are like me, that’s a great experience, and I am really looking forward to it.”

 Illinois Veterans Graphic

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