Abraham House-El stands outside the South Shore transitional living facility he runs for homeless veterans. FORT II gives 52 honorably discharged soldiers a place to call home. Photo by Matthew Bowie.

Abraham House-El’s day doesn’t always end when he leaves the office. Not when he has empty beds to fill. He gases up his van and makes a tour of the local homeless shelters, looking for the one type of person who he thinks should never have to be there: veterans.

Chicago has an estimated 500 homeless veterans, so it’s never difficult for House-El to fill the 52 beds he offers at FORT II, a transitional housing facility for veterans who are looking for a safe and clean environment to live in while they seek employment, permanent housing and the counseling they need to adjust to civilian life.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that on one night in January 2011, 67,495 veterans were homeless nationwide, down nearly 11 percent since 2009. But the number in Illinois saw a 5 percent increase, to 1,081, and the national trend is little comfort to the veterans who had to cope with the frigid Chicago winter.

“My goal is to never go home and see a homeless veteran on the streets without a place to stay,” said House-El, facility director at FORT II, which is run by a local charity called Featherfist. “If there’s an empty bed and we can fill it, we will house that person today.”

House-El has been working with alcohol and substance abusers for years as a Featherfist case manager. So, when FORT II opened in South Shore in 2009, it was a natural transition for him to begin helping the veteran population, a group who frequently struggles with addiction in addition to the severe physical and mental scarring they received while serving their country.

House-El said he usually manages to get veterans out of the shelters and into their own apartment within four to six months.
As Featherfist prepares to open up a third FORT, The Chicago Reporter sat down with House-El to talk about his work.

Why are veterans more at risk for homelessness?

American veterans face somewhat of a different challenge when it comes to barriers such as alcohol, substance use, and untreated mental health challenges like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. The military veterans who come to us are very proud individuals.

They’re very proud to be an American veteran. And then [they] come back to a society that may not be capable of providing the level of services that they are in need of. That can become saddening at times.

It’s one thing for the [U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs] to identify a problem, and it’s another thing for the [department] to be able to properly address that problem once it has been identified. What I’m talking about is someone who may come back from overseas, identify themselves as having an opiate dependency, but there are no openings in the opiate dependency program at the [department]. So now you’ve got to take this person and tell them to just keep coming in every day until something opens up. That’s enough to make anyone discouraged.

If you come home and you’ve got this damn addiction to heroin or to cocaine or even to marijuana, and you tell that person, ‘We’ll find some place for you, but we don’t have anything today,’ that person is going to make do the best way they can. And if that means begging, borrowing or stealing, it’s going to get done. So now we’re talking about an honorably discharged veteran who may end up in the criminal justice system just because when they returned home, they had to do whatever they could do to survive.

And that’s why programs like Featherfist FORT II are so successful, because we provide them with that opportunity to have a clean, safe, secure and comfortable environment in which they can begin to address each and every one of those issues one day at a time.

Are veterans aware of the help that’s available?

That is where the crux of the problem is. If you have a homeless veteran who’s out on the streets and does not know that there’s a psychiatric assessment program at both of the [veterans hospitals] here in Chicago where they can go to and have their needs met, then they’re going to stay out there at the shelters, on the streets or riding the trains all night long. That’s why Featherfist has our Aggressive Mobile Outreach program, where we go out to the community and we try to find them. When I leave here today, I will be gassing up the Featherfist van and going to about four shelters. Right now, we have three empty beds, and if I go out to the shelters tonight, and I run across a veteran, and that veteran tells me, ‘I haven’t used drugs and alcohol in over 72 hours and I don’t want to sleep here tonight,’ that person will come back here.

What is the government doing to help?

They’re doing a lot. But certainly there’s so much more that needs to be done. Basically, they can only do as much as funding allows for them to do. When I started working for Featherfist, they had 10 [government] funded beds. Right now, we’re up to 60 beds. During the last 12 months, I’ve seen two other agencies come on board, funded by the [government] to provide housing opportunities for military veterans. So certainly the funding has increased for housing veterans.

Many private companies now are taking advantage of tax breaks for hiring veterans. I’m getting calls now on a consistent basis from individuals in the community saying, ‘Hey Abraham, I just got a grant to employ any post-9/11 veteran.’ Or, ‘Abraham, I just got a grant to provide computer training classes to any military veteran.’ Those opportunities are now coming down the pipe stream. But certainly, if you think of the number of homeless veterans on any given night in the City of Chicago, certainly what’s being done now could be doubled and maybe not even take care of all the needs.

How has your program been faring?

We can go hours talking about the success stories here. There are challenges and barriers that are preventing homeless veterans on the streets from becoming stable and independent, and Featherfist addresses those barriers and challenges. And once those are addressed, then that person pretty much is like a lion. They take off and they do what they need to do to once again become that productive member of society.

I’ve come to understand over the years of working here that we can’t help homeless veterans that are not ready to be helped. And that sometimes is the saddest part of working for Featherfist—when I do run across individuals that are just not ready for this particular level of program services. For whatever reason, they’re not ready to give up the issues and the challenges. They feel comfortable in their active addiction. They feel comfortable in living and maintaining and surviving with an unmedicated, and untreated, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and are not looking to get any help, yet want to be housed.

What can private citizens do to help?

The needs of a homeless veteran are the same needs as any other individual that’s out there trying to make it. For one, they need permanent housing. So someone that may have a two-flat apartment and is having problems renting out the garden unit of their home or their building can certainly find a stable individual in a veteran to rent that out. They also need employment. In a program like this, 75 percent of the veterans here will be very satisfied or pleased to start out working a job at minimum wage, just to be able to become stable. And then just your basic needs: toiletry items, clean towels and cleaning supplies.

We have individuals who will call us up and donate maybe six cases of laundry detergent, so a homeless veteran who does not have an income can have the ability to come up and get detergent to wash his clothes. You and I may look at that as being just something that should be average, but for someone leaving the streets who can’t wash their clothes—that’s a big deal. Those are the little small things that sometimes you and I may simply overlook.

What would you do right now if you had funding?

FORT 3 would probably open up much sooner than it’s targeted for. FORT 4 would definitely open up. But not only that. One of the things that we could benefit from is having more of an employment component built into the program. We need an all-in-one, full-service program that provides the housing as well as the employment needs. We could also talk the veteran affairs department’s benefits program into coming back on our site. So a good portion of our veterans were able to access benefits right here in the facility.

The needs of our military veterans are real. They do exist. They exist for an array of reasons. There’s no one reason why one person is homeless, so seeing them get those issues identified is so important. If there were just more programs like this that would be able to do that, I’m sure that we would see an end to homelessness happen in a very short amount of time.