David Dempsey

Assisting our veterans

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

No one who served our country should be without a home and yet, according to the most recent point-in-time count by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which assesses the number of homeless people on any given night, veterans made up approximately 7% of all homeless adults in the country.

As the director of Catholic Charities St. Leo’s Residence for Veterans since 2014, I have been privileged to help homeless veterans find stability with our unique, multi-faceted approach.

The St. Leo’s Residence is part of Catholic Charities St. Leo’s Campus for Veterans, the first and only completed project of its kind in the nation.

Located in Chicago’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood, the campus includes St. Leo’s Residence, the Pope John Paul II Residence for persons with physical disabilities, the Veterans Affairs-operated Outpatient Clinic and Resource Center and St. Leo’s Veterans Memorial Garden. In addition to subsidized rent, residents receive comprehensive case management and supportive services, which are critical for helping them achieve and maintain stable housing and self-sufficiency.

Most people do not fully understand the challenges that the population we serve face. It is common to assume that PTSD is the driving factor for their unhoused state, but the reality is that veterans experiencing homelessness often faced numerous challenges before their military service, such as generational poverty, unemployment, limited education, family violence, mental illness or substance use.

Many of the residents at St. Leo’s served our country heroically and gained valuable skills during their military service. However, the combination of trauma from live combat together with unresolved past issues can make their transition to civilian life more difficult. This is why our approach to providing both housing and other supportive services is critical for their success.

St. Leo’s Residence consists of 141 fully furnished studio apartments, expansive common recreational space, a computer lab, fitness room and multipurpose rooms for community meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In addition, each resident is assigned a master’s-level case manager who helps them design an individualized plan to maintain stable housing, increase income through benefits or employment and address other barriers to self-sufficiency such as substance use, mental health issues, trauma, level of education and need for social or familial supports.

We advocate every day for our veteran residents, connecting them to other Catholic Charities programs or services from one of our community-based partners. Case managers work closely with the on-site VA clinic to help residents achieve the greatest possible level of health and self-sufficiency.

Sometimes it’s hard for vets to accept help — they’ve been trained as soldiers, as protectors. Being vulnerable and accepting something for themselves doesn’t come naturally. But when they take advantage of services such as those we offer at St. Leo’s, they can truly soar.

One of my most inspiring client relationships was a female resident, Debbie, who came to us from a domestic violence shelter and was suffering from a variety of issues including depression and anxiety. She was using a walker to get around due to her injuries. In her own words, she had a “very dim view of life.”

In the beginning, she isolated herself in her room, but we didn’t give up on her. Slowly she began participating in our programming. She kept on engaging and challenging herself. She went to her medical appointments and took advantage of the other services. She worked on paying her bills and cleaning up her credit issues.

Through her own tenacity and a little help from us, she had a complete turnaround. By the time she left St. Leo’s, she was able to buy her own home through a Chicago Housing Authority program and was walking entirely on her own.

Witnessing the success of people like Debbie, and the dedication of my incredible staff who serve them, inspires me each day. It is tough work, but my team and I are continually amazed by the extraordinary resilience and fortitude of our residents.

They keep moving forward, keep striving, even with everything they’ve confronted and continue to confront. It is truly a privilege to assist our brave veterans on their journey to find peace, stability and a permanent home.




  • catholic charities
  • veterans