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Szul: Making ripples in helping homeless vets

Published: Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Can one person make a difference?  From my view, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

I work for TLS Veterans, a small but growing nonprofit organization. The agency got its start because Alan Belcher, a McHenry County veteran, had an idea to help homeless veterans and rallied other local veterans to make the idea a reality.

TLS, a founding member of the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness, incorporated in 1996 with little more than sheer determination not to leave a fellow veteran behind.

As a nonveteran, I do not fully understand the evolution of this drive. My speculation is that it was somehow rooted in Mr. Belcher’s experiences on a battlefield in Vietnam. Then, years later, fired by the number of homeless veterans he saw while working as Dorr Township supervisor in the mid-1990s.

His efforts probably won’t make it into history books, but his determination to create TLS has had an effect similar to the one from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s famous quote, “Each time a man ... acts to improve the lot of others .. he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”

TLS is sending forth ripples. 

TLS’ flagship program is New Horizons, a transitional housing program that debuted in Hebron in 2001. It offers up to 24 months of housing to 35-40 homeless veterans each year, almost all with substance abuse disorders, and some with both addictions and moderate mental illnesses.

One young veteran who resided at New Horizons stands out in my mind. He enrolled in the program with a commitment to rebuild his life. While at New Horizons, he worked and went to college full time. Today, he’s living in the community and completing his master’s degree in social work, and he plans on pursuing a doctorate with the hope that, someday, he will develop policies for human service agencies like ours. A ripple went forth.

TLS started a Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program in 2009. Each year, HVRP helps at least 75 homeless veterans from Chicago’s northwest suburbs to land a job that, hopefully, leads to a stable housing situation. Each month, about 145 low-income veteran families from our county attend a food distribution at TLS’ headquarters in McHenry. Each veteran housed or veteran family fed sends another ripple.

Last October, TLS launched a Supportive Services for Veteran Families program that serves McHenry, Lake and north suburban Cook counties in Illinois and Kenosha County in Wisconsin. To date, SSVF has prevented five families from becoming homeless and helped 15 find housing after becoming homeless.

Here’s one story: Mom and dad served overseas in the Marines during the Iraq/Afghanistan era. One son was living in North Carolina with his grandparents, but an 11-month-old son was living with mom and dad in their car. Mom, who had been a sergeant, was pregnant.

SSVF case managers were called. They placed the family in emergency housing in a hotel. On Jan. 1, the family, with the help of SSVF staff, moved into an apartment in Waukegan. Mom and dad have returned to school under the GI Bill. More ripples were created.

TLS is working with the McHenry County Veterans Assistance Commission, McHenry County Housing Authority, Lake-McHenry Veterans and Family Services and a representative from the Illinois Department of Employment Security to hold the McHenry County Veterans Stand Down from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday at VFW Post 5040, 240 N. Throop St., Woodstock.

The Stand Down is anticipated to draw up to 90 homeless and at-risk veterans with the goal of providing them a warm meal, as well as services and referrals to help or keep them from homelessness. If at least one veteran becomes sheltered or is prevented from losing housing because of the Stand Down, another ripple goes forth.

In 2010, our country’s leaders made a commitment to end veteran homelessness in the U.S. by the end of 2015. Since then, there has been a 25 percent decrease in the number of homeless veterans across the country.

It is without a doubt that TLS’ efforts have contributed to this decrease and will help the country meet this bold goal. Thanks go to Alan Belcher, who stepped down as TLS executive director at the start of the year, for sending forth so many ripples from McHenry County.

• Barb Szul is a grant writer for TLS Veterans and invites the community to join the McHenry County Continuum of Care to End Homelessness. Call her at 815-679-6667.

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