Jonathan Cooper knows the challenges of coming home from war, having served three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan in the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Going from the structure of military service to the lack of structure in civilian life was hard, the 34-year-old said. Cooper also suffered from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Homelessness among veterans is an “epidemic,” Cooper said.
“There should not be one American hero on the streets,” said Cooper, who volunteered for the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Chicago Standdown at the Northwest Armory in Humboldt Park on Friday.
The Chicago Standdown is a biannual gathering of government and nonprofit organizations that provides military veterans with food, clothing, haircuts and various other resources. The Greater Chicago Food Depository’s staff and volunteers distributed bags of canned goods and fresh produce to more than 200 veterans at this Standdown.
Food Depository staff also connected veterans to needed assistance, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and Medicaid. Separately, staff with Chicago’s Community Kitchens, the Food Depository’s culinary job training program, recruited prospective students.
In recent years, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness has declined, but many still need our help. Nationally, there are more than 37,800 veterans experiencing homelessness, according to the January 2018 “point-in-time” count administered every year by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
More than 800 of those veterans live in Illinois, according to the data. Both the state and national figures have declined in recent years, a positive trend that reflects the success of some housing efforts. But, as Cooper said, even one is too many.
More generally, many veterans face food insecurity, which means they lack consistent access to affordable and nutritious food.
About 18 percent of the households served by the Food Depository have at least one military veteran or active duty service member.
The Food Depository has in recent years ramped up efforts to help Cook County veterans, including distribution to food pantries at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital.
Several of the Vietnam War-era veterans at the Standdown said they struggled after leaving the service, in part because of how they were received following the unpopular war. Anthony Britton, 63, said his alcoholism remains a day-to-day struggle. But Britton said he’s doing better than in years past, mostly because of his Christian faith.
“So many people fall through the cracks,” said Britton, who served in the Air Force.
At the Standdown, Britton received a new pair of boots, along with clothes, socks, underwear and bags of food. Sporting a Hawaiian shirt and broad grin, the veteran said he appreciated the goods and the camaraderie of other veterans.
Lilia Hodges, 66, left the Army in 1984 and didn’t know where to go. She and her two young daughters slept on friends’ floors in sleeping bags until she found a job. She didn’t learn about the resources available to her until, years later, a veteran visited her church.
Now Hodges comes to every Standdown, twice a year, and gathers information to share with other veterans.
“I felt so lost when I left the Army and I don’t ever want anyone else to feel that way,” Hodges said. “I arm myself and others with information, now, so no one has to go through what I did.”
Henry Montgomery, 68, served in the Navy from 1969 to 1974.
“I was stateside, but that doesn’t mean I don’t deal with a whole lot of issues,” Montgomery said.
After military service, Montgomery was a truck driver for more than 30 years. Upon quitting his job, he became homeless. And in 2014, as his health deteriorated, he visited the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center for help. There, the staff connected Montgomery with housing and SNAP benefits.
“Sometimes as a veteran you can be afraid to ask for help,” Montgomery said. “But when I started asking for help and going to events like this, my life got way better.”