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 2. Making "Vietnam in HD" >>

Homeless Veterans Initiative Serves Hundreds in Milwaukee

By Bill Christofferson

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When two Vietnam veterans began a weekly outreach program in 2008, to find homeless veterans in Milwaukee and assess their needs, they didn't know what they were getting into. That two-hour a week commitment has blossomed into the Homeless Veterans Initiative (HVI), a program that has helped hundreds of homeless and low-income veterans to rebuild their lives. It now runs a food pantry, offers a free weekly breakfast, helps veterans get benefits, provides furniture and clothing, and connects them with other programs, services, education and jobs.

"We learned everything the hard way. We really didn't know what we needed to address, when the project began," Mark Foreman said, but Veterans for Peace (VFP) Chapter 102, of which he is past president, knew there were several hundred homeless veterans in the Milwaukee area who needed help, and the chapter took it on as a project. Foreman, now president of the Homeless Veterans Initiative board, is a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and represents VVAW on a state Veterans Affairs board.

To learn what homeless veterans needed, Foreman and Dennis Johnson, another VFP member, began to visit a daytime shelter and resource center for the homeless every week for two hours, with a sign saying they were seeking veterans.

It started on a shoestring budget, with donations from Foreman's friends and family and VFP members. At first, help was limited to bus passes and inexpensive cell phones, but quickly expanded to include helping veterans to get Veterans Administration benefits and other services. "We'd interview them, and if they were eligible, because they were so fragile and knew so little about the bureaucracy, we'd literally take them by the hand to help them file a claim," Foreman said. So far, 70 to 100 veterans have been able to get benefits they didn't know they were entitled to. Others have also qualified for HUD-VASH loans to get into apartments. One 70-year-old vet was about to be evicted from his rooming house when he crossed paths with Foreman and Johnson. He didn't qualify for VA benefits, but they helped him apply for Social Security, and he ended up with a $35,000 check for back benefits plus a monthly payment. He decided to move back into the rooming house near the VA, where his friends are.

Dennis Johnson inspects the new walk-in
cooler, which VVAW helped finance and install.

Johnson, meanwhile, expanded the outreach program, with pre-dawn patrols to offer coffee and sandwiches to veterans living under bridges, in parks, and in abandoned buildings. One of them, found living in an abandoned factory, now has an apartment, works full-time for the homeless initiative and runs its furniture program, picking up donations and delivering them to veterans. From sandwiches and coffee, the initiative expanded to provide groceries, with deliveries once a week to a growing list of low income veterans. The food program operated out of Johnson's garage, until late in 2010 when St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church, located near the Veterans Administration in West Milwaukee, opened its doors and its basement to the program. The church is now the location of the weekly food pantry, which supplies food to more than 200 veterans and family members every Tuesday, and to a free breakfast on Thursdays, which also feeds about 200 people a week. Clothing, household items and a well-stocked library are also available on pantry days, and the breakfast has become a social event that includes sing-alongs at the piano, blood pressure checks, chair massages and other activities. Dozens of volunteers now help with the program, which has interviewed and served some 700 veterans since it began.

"When we first moved into the church, I didn't know if there would be enough people to help us," Johnson said. "In the last year we have had so many people come forward who want to help, are happy to help, have great skills, and unlimited energy. I'm just dumbfounded and so grateful. It has changed my whole outlook on the human race." When the program needed a walk-in cooler, Milwaukee's Vietnam Veterans Against the War chapter loaned HVI the money to buy it, and John Zutz, a longtime VVAW member and activist, helped organize the installation. Bill Christofferson, another VVAW member, is secretary of the HVI board.

In its early stages, the program raised most of its money in small donations, collecting money at neighborhood festivals, street fairs, and parades. Now it has begun to attract some foundation grants, including two of $20,000 each last year, when donations topped $100,000. Veterans organizations, church groups, businesses, and individuals all have been generous donors, but small individual donations are still a key piece of the budget.

The program continues to evolve. Johnson's next vision is for a home visitation program to reach out to home bound veterans — who still get weekly food deliveries — and spend some time with them, offer some companionship, and see what other help they need. "We learned in the military that we don't leave our wounded behind. That's our guiding principle," says Johnson, now the program's executive director. "No one who has ever served the United States in uniform should end up living on the street."

For more information, visit the Homeless Veterans Initiative website, www.neverhomeless.org.

Bill Christofferson is a VVAW member from Milwaukee.

John Zutz of VVAW, left, helps install fan in walk-in
cooler. VVAW loaned the money to purchase it.

 2. Making "Vietnam in HD" >>