Feature photo by zol87

Chicago has two faces; one she shows, shiny and smiling; and the crooked, dirty, deeply scarred one she hides. The city’s promoters wax windy praising hip ‘hoods, family neighborhoods, gayborhoods, ethnic enclaves like Chinatown. Then there’s the (in low tones) “bad” neighborhoods. You know- the Broke side of the city. The advice is always the same; short and blunt: “don’t go there.”

In this column, we’re going to go there. We’re going wherever Chicago’s Broke are: warehouse punker squats, ghetto greystones, student dorms, hipster flats, under bridges. We’ll look at the struggles- and the joys- of living in Chicago on very little.

Let the Brokest go first: Chicago’s homeless. What follows is the first of a series on the challenges faced by veterans of war who are unable to find shelter.

We Didn’t Come Back as Heroes”

After high school, Jose Vasquez was drafted and served three years in Vietnam. Like many veterans, when he came home he struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD develops as the result of traumatic life experiences, and can cause anxiety, flashbacks, and depression. It is as if the mind, haunted by nightmare, is stuck on high alert. Vasquez says he’s seen this in other vets, “War changes you. You come back different. You used to be an easy guy, now you snap off. You see a lot of things you shouldn’t see.” There are things he saw he’ll never tell anyone. “Everybody has that,” he says.

To add to his personal distress, Vietnam vets found they were often scorned by Americans watching a violent, messy, unpopular war unfold on their TV screens. “We didn’t come back as heroes,” Vasquez says, “They called up baby killers and threw tomatoes at us. Some guys would take their uniforms off.” For some, this compounded feelings of guilt, disillusionment, and anger. “When you get the order, hey, you gotta do it. You feel bad, but unless it’s really outrageous, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

Veterans may find difficulty adjusting to civilian life. They may have disabilities that make it hard to work. Sometimes their families can’t or won’t support them, and they end up on the streets.

Vasquez says he turned to alcohol to cope with his problems, which made things worse. Then he watched a friend die of cirrhosis of the liver. “I thought he was older than me,” he says. “He looked bad, but he was young”, only 19. Vasquez has been sober since, 30 years.

Even clean, it took Vasquez many years to come out of homelessness.  He sold papers, worked as a day laborer, and lived under Wacker Drive with a group of men who would sleep in shifts and watch each other’s stuff. Some of the men, Vasquez said, were “bothered” when passers-by would not make eye contact or say hello to them. But Vasquez says this never bothered him. He remembers warmly the people who did come to help, bringing soup and blankets to the men who slept out on cold nights under busy city streets.

Over 100,000 Homeless Veterans Yearly

According to a U.S. Department of Housing report, an estimated 136,334 people self-identified as veterans spent at least one night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program in 2009. The number may be higher- some folks don’t report to shelters, they sleep on the streets. The report describes the “typical” veteran as a single white male aged 30 to late 40s and disabled. There was a higher rate of relatively impoverished racial groups (i.e. Latinos). Seniors were also over-represented (50s to 60s). 8.4% were between the ages of 18 and 30. As there is an increasing percentage of female veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, more young women veterans stay in shelters. The report estimates over 5,000 veterans’ families are without shelter annually. Over half were described as disabled.

“You Just Gotta Raise Up Your Hand.”

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has many programs to help veterans who need help keeping a roof over their heads. In true military fashion, they are meticulously organized (with initialisms!) to meet specific needs. There’s The HUD-VASH Program to help vets secure permanent housing, the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) Program, and The Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program to fund private organizations that help veterans. There are preventative services like the Veteran Justice Outreach Program, established to “avoid the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness” by providing health services and the Health Care for Re-entry Veterans (HCRV) Program geared to help vets who do wind up incarcerated to stay off the streets upon release. There’s a new Supportive Service for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program and a Compensated Work Therapy Program. The VA also offers a 24-hour helpline for veterans: 1-877-4AID- VET. According to the VA’s website, “HUD has awarded funding for approximately 10,000 HUD-VASH annually for the last three years.”

Not all veterans qualify for all benefits- there can be restrictions, red-tape, limited resources. Veterans themselves lead the charge to fix these problems. A group of vets founded Stand-Downs -military jargon for a retreat to a safe camp where battle-weary soldiers can relax, recover, and refresh their spirits. They have spread across the country and evolved into giant fairs that offer health screenings, selective placement in programs, outreach, and other services. They also offer camaraderie and remind those who are struggling that they are not alone.

Vasquez says that to him, it seems that, “Some guys get taken care of very well” by the Veteran’s Administration, “but others don’t.” He doesn’t know why. Regardless, he believes that homelessness isn’t something that can or should be solved by the government alone; private entities must be part of the solution.

Vasquez is somewhat critical of the city’s shelters, saying the biggest problem is that there just aren’t enough of them. Of the shelters we do have, he says, some are too heavily invested in religious indoctrination. Many have limited services and hours of operation, he says, and can be dangerous. Many individuals struggling with homelessness choose to “sleep out” instead of going to the shelters.

Vasquez says that veterans, used to being self-reliant, may be ashamed to reach out. “You can get help, but you have to raise up your hand and ask for help.” He says, “I raised up my hand, so I got help.” Now Jose Vasquez works with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a privately funded nonprofit where he advocates for more housing, jobs, and support services for the city’s homeless, who (all together) number in the tens of thousands.

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