WOODSTOCK – The man they called Tunnel Tom twists his body, leans back, squints at a clock.
“Four years, 21 days...” he said. “Ten hours, 35 minutes, however many seconds.”
It’s been that long since Tom Manley was broken by alcoholism, not quite that long since he was living in a Lake in the Hills tunnel 10 feet around. Much has changed. Manley is on his feet, in his own place, sober, smiling.
Wednesday, he was helping. At the McHenry County Veterans Stand Down, Manley joined agencies from across the county in attempting to draw homeless and at-risk veterans toward county resources.
Veterans made their way through employers, chatted with agencies and enjoyed a catered barbecue lunch at the VFW Post 5040 in Woodstock.
Stand down events aren’t new to the county, but this year’s team of responsible agencies – the Veterans Assistance Commission, TLS Veterans, Lake-McHenry Veterans and Family Services, the Illinois Department of Employment Security and the McHenry County Housing Authority – put an emphasis on having organizations ready to start the process toward assistance.
Organizers didn’t plan speeches for the crowd.
“Services, not words,” said Veterans Assistance Commission Superintendent Mike Iwanicki, describing the approach. “Words don’t mean a lot if they’re not backed up.”
Sue Rose, community service director of the McHenry County Housing Authority, said late Wednesday morning that she felt the event was drawing a strong crowd. She had several visitors to her table, set just inside the entry of the downstairs space at the VFW. The upstairs also was filled.
The housing authority had attended stand down events before, but this was the first one the group has helped organize.
Rose said homelessness among veterans is often influenced by issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.
“[Homelessness] certainly touches veterans as much as it does the rest of the population, if not more,” she said.
The event also was held to coincide with the point-in-time homeless survey, a yearly survey that falls on a certain January day each year, as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rose said.
Last year, the survey found 23 percent of homeless adults in McHenry County were veterans, down from 46 percent a year earlier. But TLS Veterans has said the drop could have come because a housing program that usually holds homeless veterans didn’t respond.
Rose said the survey, in general, tends to be a shaky barometer of the homeless population, in part because distributing it in January means the numbers don’t reflect the homeless who find temporary shelter with loved ones. She hoped combining the survey with the stand down would provide a more accurate look at homeless veterans in the county.
But she reiterated Iwanicki’s point that the true goal was to put the homeless in contact with people who can provide them real help.
“A lot of these organizations, people might not necessarily know about,” added Robin Doeden, executive director of the McHenry County Community Foundation.
For Manley, a Marine who served in the Vietnam War, finding such resources turned out to be the determining factor in getting his own place about three and a half years ago, and ultimately in establishing a more stable life.
Now Manley tries to pass along a simple message to his fellow veterans.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “Keep trying and talk to the right people.”