Chicago Rallies Hope for Heroes

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Outside the main entrance to the North Kedzie Armory, a gathering buzz of anticipation travelled through the crowd. Guys in swarthy coats at the outskirts took a break from the chatter to cast an anxious glance at the door every couple of minutes. Guys near the entrance inched up the stairs to snare a glimpse through the windows. The formation soon swelled the sidewalk and seeped into the flanks of the building. Some of them had been there for two or three hours already; a tightly wrapped man on a wheelchair named Zellmore had come at 3 in the morning. He wanted to make sure he got in early so all the good stuff would still be there.

It was the day before Veteran’s Day and the bone sinking chill of the night before still clung to the air surrounding the Armory. Inside, volunteers were stacking the sweatpants, long johns, coats, and t-shirts that would be distributed to the 700 some veterans that will shuffle through the vast drill floor before the day was over.

Jesse Brown VA Hospital nurse Aldridge Locke was monitoring the unpacking of the supplies. He explained that this was the second Stand Down of the year for Chicago’s population of homeless veterans and the only one that will carry them through for the winter. The term “Stand Down” originated from the battlefield: it refers to the moment of respite taken by soldiers in the midst of combat. Since its first staging in 1988, the Stand Down has taken that principle of recharging to the home front, mobilizing local communities to reach out directly to the over 75,000 veterans of the United States Armed Forces who are homeless.

The operation has gathered momentum across the country over the past two decades. The November 10th event was a collaboration of 12 different agencies operating under the umbrella of the Chicago Veterans Economics Development Council.

On top of stocking up for the winter, the Stand Down also served as a hub for local organizations and programs focused on veteran needs to raise awareness about the critical financial, psychological, and legal challenges to getting homeless vets off the streets.

Some organizations, like Catholic Charities and Community Housing & Development (CHAD), assist veterans with finding homes and employment. The two issues interlock in a vicious cycle: losing a job is the largest risk to homelessness and incarceration among veterans, and having a record or being homeless is the biggest hurdle to getting a job. Think of all the upstart costs required before you can even begin to look for a job: an address, a permanent phone number—not to mention funds for reliable transportation to go hunt down applications and attend interviews.

Many of the people staffing the stands were veterans themselves. Don, a social worker at the Veteran Justice Outreach stand was in the Army and spoke of the stigma often associated with asking for help amongst a group of people who had been trained to be “self-sufficient, for safety and for survival.” He believes that by “offering the face of a vet to a vet,” veterans in need can talk about the difficulties they face to someone who can relate to the unique pressures that can isolate them from civilian life.

Others, like Matt, who works in Disaster Response at the Red Cross, have family members who were veterans. With a father who served in the first Iraqi War, Matt has a special appreciation for the measure of sacrifice given by soldiers. He points to the “stereotypical image of the homeless vet” that populates civilian perceptions about the kind of people gathered here today, preventing them from “see[ing] past the gruff because they deserve way better.” He said he was heartened by the sight of the 250 some volunteers who came out to help at the Stand Down.

At midday, volunteers, veterans and a couple of active duty service members from the Armory mingle over a lunch of barbecue chicken and ribs inside the canteen. Zellmore was pleased with the haircut he had gotten at the barber stand and compares a sweater he had gotten in his bag with his neighbor. At the table next to him, George, a large, spirited army vet expressed hope between mouthfuls of blueberry ice cream that he can use the money he gets from CHAD to move to Savannah. “It’s warm outside over there,” he grinned, “it’ll be a new beginning for me.”

Written by: Christine Li

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