The church reaches out to help Veterans in need

By Catholic New World
Sunday, May 18, 2014

About a third of homeless men in the United States are veterans, and veterans are more likely to be homeless than non-veterans. Reuben Villagomez knows that, and he knows a whole lot about what it’s like.

Villagomez, a former Army machine gunner, spent close to five years without a real residence. He came from the Army and moved in with his father, a Vietnam veteran, for about a year. But soon the two were butting heads.

“Two veterans living together,” he said. “It didn’t work.”

So Villagomez slept in his car, at friends’ places, wherever he could find. He drank a lot and used drugs, he said, and he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

It wasn’t until he entered an in-patient treatment program last year at Hines VA Hospital that things began to turn around. After he was discharged from Hines, he was recommended for a spot at Cooke’s Manor, Catholic Charities home for male veterans in recovery from substance abuse problems on the Hines campus. It took about a month for a space to open up, but Villagomez has been there since December. He’s done so well that now he has a full-time job and is preparing to move into his own apartment.

“I’ve accomplished more in the last six months than I did in the last six years,” he said. “They helped me set attainable goals, and gave me guidance to achieve them.”

Villagomez told his story at the third annual Catholic Charities Veterans in Need Dinner, held May 9 at the Union League Club in Chicago. The event raises money for Catholic Charities programs that specifically assist veterans, including Cooke’s Manor; the St. Leo Residence, which provides long-term transitional housing in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood; the Bishop Goedert Residence, for senior veterans and their surviving spouses, on the Hines campus; and the Veteran’s Employment Program, which helps veterans find and keep jobs.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has been helping military men and women, and the families they leave behind, ever since it was founded, with the first planning meeting occurring only days before the United States entered World War I in 1917.

“There are a lot of needs among homeless veterans in the United States,” said Msgr. Michael Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. “I was asked by President (George W.) Bush to create a campus for veterans, sort of a one-stop place where they could get all the services they need, and that’s what we did with St. Leo’s.”

The St. Leo Campus, which opened in 2005, is a partnership between Catholic Charities and the Veteran’s Administration and includes the St. Leo Residence, the Pope John Paul II Residence for disabled veterans, a medical clinic and the Veteran’s Garden.

Other Catholic Charities programs help veterans as well, including everything from senior housing to Mary’s Closet, which provides business clothes to people seeking employment. The suit Villagomez wore to the Veterans in Need dinner came from there.

“Veterans who are returning just have a lot of issues to deal with,” Boland said. “It was particularly hard for the Vietnam-era vets, and it is still. A lot of them have lost their ability to trust. With the veterans who are returning now, we want to be able to help them right away, not after they have been on the streets for 30 years.”

Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the dinner as a special guest. He said the efforts of Catholic Charities to help veterans in the Archdiocese of Chicago are a “shining model” for other non-profit agencies to follow.

“It’s a partnership,” he said. “We have to work with the NGOs and the 501(c)3s to offer support. We don’t want them to have to do things they aren’t already doing, but do those things to support the veterans. Catholic Charities provides transitional housing and counseling; at St. Leo, they do that for veterans.”

Randall DeGroat, a Vietnam veteran who is now retired from the U.S. Post Office, said it takes local efforts to help veterans. DeGroat was in the Army from 1957-1969, serving in Vietnam during his last two years in the service.

“I was homeless and I went through some dire straits,” he said, adding that he never was addicted to drugs or alcohol. “It was just the financial issues.”

Much of that was resolved when he was approved for his veteran’s disability payments, he said, something he needed help getting.

“The VA is just too big” to do everything, DeGroat said. “Catholic Charities can see the person in front of them.”



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