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First in U.S. project to house vet families

Tue, Dec 11, 2012

Alderman’s vision coincides with VOA of Illinois dream

New campus-style housing for 73 veteran-headed families in Englewood is the realization of a vision for Alderman JoAnn Thompson (16th ward ) and a first-in-the-U.S. dream for Volunteers of America of Illinois (VOA Illinois).

Alderman JoAnn Thompson, (16th Ward)

“Ever since I became alderman I had started to ask around about veteran housing,” Thompson said in a telephone interview. “It was a vision from the Lord to do veteran houses for homeless veteran women and their children. I knew they were out there, so I started asking around.”

For two years, Thompson queried personnel at the City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development. They introduced her to VOA of Illinois just after the opening of its Hope Manor Apartments in Humboldt Park: supportive housing for 50 homeless veterans in need of immediate and intensive services, and 30 more units for vets who need longer term housing but less help.

“When the Lord intends for you to do His work, He will make sure you meet the right people in order to do it,” Thompson said.

“She called me within a couple of days of opening Hope Manor I, in fall of 2010, and said, ‘I want to do something for the veterans in my ward like what you are doing in Alderman [Walter] Burnett’s [27th] ward,’ ” said Nancy Hughes Moyer, vice president and CEO of VOA of Illinois.

When Hughes Moyer saw the 2.33-acre size of the city-owned parcel available in Thompson’s 16th ward, “We knew we had the ability to try something different that had been on our dream list, more in the matter of family housing for veterans. It’s the first in the country that we know of; we’ve looked around.”

Childless men over 40 had been the U.S. veterans’ demographic for the past 20 years, but the face of the military is changing, she said. Over the next 12 to 24 months, 15 percent of the veteran population will be women. They are statistically twice as likely to become homeless as their non-veteran female peers.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), six percent to eight percent of all homeless veterans are women, which means up to 175 female veterans, most with children, every night in Chicago. The VA estimates that 39 percent of returning women soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan have some kind of mental health disorder such as traumatic levels of anxiety or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); 30 percent have suffered Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

Simultaneously, 90 percent of these women are already mothers, returning to what Hughes Moyer termed “an enormously challenging employment market where unfortunately they are not competitive enough through no fault of their own.

“One of the things people don’t realize is that for most of our veterans going into the military today at 18 before they had any real employment experience, the military becomes their only employment experience,” she said. “The salaries they’re earning in the military allow them to feel they can pay for children, but unfortunately the kinds of jobs they are finding they are able to get are at the entry level, often minimum wage positions. For many, they are seeing a substantial drop in their income when they leave the military that they hadn’t expected and had time to plan for.”

Translating military skills to the civilian job force is still a private sector work-in-progress, she said.

“You go off and fight a war for the freedom of our country and you can’t get help: something is wrong with that picture,” Thompson said.

The alderman said she is compassionate about homeless people because “I was once homeless myself, so I know what it feels like to be homeless.” She lived at the Chicago Christian Industrial League for 18 months from 1993 to 1995, when she went to the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. Two years later she was promoted to sergeant; she was a lieutenant when she left in 2007 to take her aldermanic seat.

She said the Hope Manor II site, which extends nearly a full city block on Halsted Street between 60th and 61st Streets and back to Green Street, is intended to stimulate Englewood at the same time it helps veteran-headed families.

“You have to bring the people first and other things will come,” Thompson said. “As you know, this is a food desert, but we are working on bringing a food store to the 16th ward.”

“Alderman Thompson is certainly one of the most passionate elected officials I have ever met,” Hughes Moyer said. “She has been enormously committed to making sure this project makes it across the finish line. It’s obvious to us this is really a personal calling to her to make sure this happens, as it is to us. But it is special when it is a shared calling between elected an elected official and the human service providers trying to make it happen.”

Their job, she said, “will be to squeeze the most good of something we intend to do, to make the lives better of people who live there and also help the community.”

The 101,298-square-foot vacant parcel was the former site of Englewood Hospital. Hope Manor II will have a headquarters building, with first floor devoted entirely to services, case management, recovery and parent support, as well as one bedroom apartments and studios. There will also be six flats that offer 2- and 3-bedroom apartments and townhomes with four-bedroom units surrounding a park and children’s play area.

Hope Manor II will be open to veterans earning zero to 60 percent of the Chicago Area Median Income; no household will pay more than 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rent. There will likely be some men among the tenants because some will be drawn from Chicago Housing Authority lists, since the CHA is providing housing vouchers. VOA of Illinois will have its own applicants; among 300 veteran-headed households it serves, 55 percent are men. Starting this summer, VOA of Illinois will start taking inquiries about placement on waiting lists for Hope Manor II; those interested can call their offices at 312.564.2300 and ask for veterans service teams.

The $23 million project used $3 million in tax increment finance (TIF) dollars as well as Chicago Low Income Housing Tax Credits, HOME dollars from the city, $790,000 from the Illinois Housing Development Authority and $300,000 from the Federal Home Loan Bank.

Ground will be broken next March, with construction expected to take 12 months, although leasing will begin next December.

“Seventy-three units is nothing to sneeze at,” Thompson said. “I am really proud and every time I talk about it I get such a warm feeling I am filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Written by Suzanne Hanney, StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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