A Forest Park vet struggles to keep others out of homelessness

As President Obama announces more troops to come home from Afghanistan, a veteran from Chicago’s Austin neighborhood says the Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t doing enough.

February 13, 2013

When I met Homer Bizzle in his tiny food pantry in west suburban Forest Park, the lights were off.

Even though the pantry, called America Cares Too, had been open all day, Bizzle said the darkness was typical.

“We just trying to conserve lights, cause, non-profit, you know,” he said.

Bizzle started the service project for vets and their families in 2011 after leaving the Army Reserves. He’s been running the project on volunteer labor and financing it with small donations and cash out of his own paycheck.

“I just wanted to give back to my fellow veterans and their families,” Bizzle said.

By day, the 33-year-old native of the Austin neighborhood is an advocate for people with disabilities. In the evenings, he heads over to the his spare storefront on W. Harrison St. to meet up with the vets who come here seeking support.

The battle at home

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama announced that 34,000 troops will be home from Afghanistan by this time next year. That’s a little over half the remaining troops in what most consider America’s longest war.

But when they get here, many military vets face new, even longer battles - battles with trauma and homelessness. Many come home with mental or physical disabilities, and all come home to a slouching economy. Unemployment among veterans is higher than the national average, and veteran status itself can be a stigma in a job search. One in three men living on the streets is a veteran (although those numbers have declined in recent years). And a recent study estimates that 22 vets commit suicide every day in the U.S.

All of this is familiar to Bizzle.

“Some of them suffer from PTSD, some anxiety, some have flash backs, shell shock...” Bizzle said of the vets he serves.

While the VA does offer mental health services, Bizzle said traumatized vets who don’t feel they can trust the government aren’t left with many options.

“It’s kinda hard for a soldier that’s coming off active duty to get those kinda treatments in the civilian world because everything costs money, unfortunately,” he said.

He believes the best solutions can come from veterans themselves.

“No offense to politicians but they don’t understand the veterans situation, and by me being a veteran I could understand our own situation, the problems we deal with,” he said.

The main room at America Cares Too contains a donated TV and a desk with no phone (Bizzle uses his cellphone to run the project because the ComEd bill was too high).

Three computers sit on folding tables donated by a recovery group that meets next door. And in the back there’s a spare office where Bizzle keeps vets’ files. The walls are lines with boxes of donated toys and socks and underwear purchased with TJ Maxx and Target gift cards. Bizzle’s appeals to local government bodies and the VA for financial support have been unsuccessful so far.

A chronic lack of support

This month Esquire reported that the Navy Seal who shot Osama Bin Laden is jobless and living without health insurance. The headline: “The Man Who Killed Osama bin Laden...Is Screwed.” Although Esquire’s story can’t be independently verified - the man in question chose to remain anonymous for his own safety - it reflects a widespread disappointment in the services provided by the state for vets, especially younger vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of “the shooter,” as he’s called in Esquire, the Navy Seal retired after 16 years of service. That meant no pension, and no more health care for his family. The cutoff point for long-term support is 20 years of service.

Bizzle’s located just a couple miles from the Hines VA Hospital, which helps thousands of vets each year. The Hines complex includes housing for homeless vets, and a network of social service providers. I called them to ask how a vet would end up at a little joint like Bizzle’s.

“I think the predominant reasons are, there are a small cohort of veterans who just do not want to be in any system,” said Anthony Spillie, the head of social work at Hines.

There are an estimated 18,000 homeless vets in the greater Chicago area, and he says that despite offering extensive services, some people just fall through the cracks. Groups like Bizzle’s can help catch them.

“There is no wrong door approach,” Spillie said. “You know most of the time you think of accessing services through the front door. Well, we’ll open whatever door we can possibly open for veterans to end and treat their homelessness.

Bizzle wants to hire veterans to be case workers and counselors, and one day turn his own Bellwood home into a transitional housing center for female vets.

But the lack of support is frustrating - and so is seeing what his fellow vets go through.

“It be times I wanna throw that uniform in the garbage,” he said.

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