Hundreds of struggling veterans find help in Morristown
By Louis C. Hochman/NJ.com
Jerry’s got a knack for photography. He’s got a master’s degree in communication. And he’s a veteran who served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam era.
And a year ago, Jerry — whose photos of Air Force life are currently on display at the Morris County Library — was on the verge of homelessness. Since his service, he said, he hadn’t worked anywhere long-term. A year here, a year there. A stint as a social worker in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Most recently, he’d worked at the Dover library for a few years under a state program — “but that went away. I’m not sure it even exists anymore,” Jerry said. He got picked up by the library directly, but only part-time.
That wasn’t really enough to make his rent in Wharton, Jerry said. He knew there were programs meant to help people like him, but couldn’t struggled to navigate the bureaucracy, he said.
“It seemed like it was so difficult to find someone willing to sign on the dotted line,” Jerry said.
So in January, he stepped into the Morristown National Guard Armory for the location’s first Operation Stand Down. He met people from the event’s lead organization, Community Hope, which provides housing and essential services to those in recovery from mental illness, and which operates a transitional housing program for homeless veterans.
He met people from Operation Chillout, an interfaith coalition that goes out into communities to find homeless people and bring them the food, clothing and access to services. He met people form Hope House of Dover, which provides behavioral and health services to those in need.
“These people came together and helped me,” Jerry said Friday at the Morristown Armory, there for the second such Stand Down organized by Community Hope. He was surrounded by hundreds of other veterans from about 10 counties, dozens of volunteers, and representatives of several community groups as well as the Department of Labor and Workforce Development. “And they made me part of the conversation.”
Earlier this year, Community Hope talked with Jerry’s landlord and bought him some time, he said. It helped him pay rent for a few months. Thinks looked bleak when the Dover library shut its doors for post-Sandy repairs in the summer, but Jerry turned 62 this year and started collecting Social Security checks, he said.
Just when it looked like his help with housing was about to run out, Jerry got a voucher from Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program, in response to an application he’d put in six months earlier. He now lives in an apartment in Parsippany, where he expects to stay with the help of his Social Security payments, his Section 8 vouchers, and the salary he’ll collect when the library reopens.
“This all happened because I came here,” Jerry said. “And I was only here for a few hours.”
Operation Stand Down exists to help people like Jerry stay on their feet, or get back on them, organizers said. It’s an effort to connect homeless or struggling veterans with the services most critical to them.
January’s event was scheduled after delays caused by Hurricane Sandy, and reached a couple of hundred veterans. That many had already signed in within two hours of Friday’s day-long program.
Veterans met groups that could help them with medical benefits through the Veterans’ Administration, housing, health screenings, mental health treatment, addition treatment, food stamps, welfare, Social Security, legal services and employment. Many walked away with new haircuts and new clothes.
Similar events are held in Newark and Cherry Hill.
Anne Burns of the newly formed Vets Chat and Chew program was at her first Stand Down, trying to find female veterans. By mid-day, she’d met about 10 — just a tiny sliver of the population of hundreds of veterans at the armory.
Female veterans’ needs, she said, are different than those of their male counterparts. They struggle with PTSD and reintegration just like men, but they’re also often carrying an additional burden as victims of sexual harassment or violence. They’re expected to be caretakers when the come home.
And they’re often even more ashamed to seek help than men, she said. They don’t feel welcome in male-dominated institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and want to get as far away from military life as possible, she said.
“You have to convince them they’re special, and that there are things out there for them,” Burns said.
In female veterans, she said, depression and anxiety often manifests trough eating disorders — a problem her organization is hoping to tackle. It’ll put participants on elimination diets, removing several sorts of foods from their diets then reintroducing them slowly over time, as it teaches them to make responsible food choices and prepare healthy, simple meals.
The process, Burns said, helps address depression and anxiety through its structure. The program also offers acupressure and relaxation techniques, as well as counseling.
MariaCristina Garcia, at the Stand Down with her 1-year-old daughter, is exactly the sort of person Burns was hoping to meet. She served in the Army from 2000 through 2008, and said she was often degraded and demeaned in the service.
Garcia taught at a Catholic School, but said she wasn’t welcomed back after getting pregnant out of wedlock. She’s been struggling financially since.
Garcia said she was at the Stand Down not only to learn about services, but to represent female veterans.
“The VA, a lot of these services, they don’t know what to do with me,” said Garia, who said she’s struggled with PTSD in the time since her service. “I’m not homeless. I’m not smelly. I don’t look sick. But I still need help. I realized, I’m entitled to these benefits. I served my country. Why is it so hard for me to get these benefits?”
Garcia said she’s planning on checking out Burns’ group, and any others that might be able to help her stabilize her life and her finances (she’s particularly looking forward to working with one on her resume). She said she owes that to her daughter.
And when things level out, she said, she might want to go back to teaching.
“That’s what 50 percent of me wants,” she said. “But part of me thinks I might want to do something to help female veterans. I want to be the face of female veterans.”e
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