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Janesville housing program helps homeless veterans

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Anna Marie Lux
February 16, 2014

JANESVILLE--The first thing Don Gross will tell you is how thankful he is to have a roof over his head.

“I remember when I first got here,” he said. “My fear and anxiety about being homeless went away. I realized I could focus on getting back on my feet.”

Gross is one of about 40 veterans in a transitional housing program called Housing 4 Our Vets, located south of Janesville. In 2011, the nonprofit Rock Valley Community Programs opened the housing, which is funded by the Veterans Administration and community donations.

Goal of the program is for homeless veterans to transition into their own housing. Men range in age from early 20s to 80. Many served during the Vietnam era. More veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are entering the program, which can house a maximum of 48.

“We have guys with all kinds of challenges,” Gross said. “They are able to live here for up to two years because our challenges take time to fix.”

Gross is a Navy veteran who served as an electrician in the nuclear power program. After getting out of the service, he worked 20 years in industrial maintenance.

He also struggled with substance abuse.

Eventually, he lost his job, vehicle, home and marriage.

“When I got here, my first priority was going through a treatment program at the Veterans Administration in Madison,” Gross said. “They saved my life. If I go back to my old ways, I realize how quickly my life will fall apart.”

He is determined to turn his situation around.

Gross recently earned a one-year degree in industrial mechanics from Blackhawk Technical College, which is within walking distance.

“It was a program that built on skills I already had,” he explained. “Plus I got veterans' educational benefits to pay for it.”

For the past year, Gross has been resident manager of the housing program.

“A lot of guys are depressed,” he said. “But they confide in each other and treat each other with respect and encouragement.”

The building includes 24 studio apartments, each with a kitchenette and bathroom. Two vets live in each unit. In addition, the site includes a community room, resource room with computers and a cafeteria, which provides three nutritious meals a day.

A case manager meets with each veteran at least once a week to review the vet's progress and to keep him on track with his individual goals. Veterans are connected with community-based services and get help with medical needs, mental health issues and finding jobs.

“I appreciate the staff,” Gross said. “They have their hands full but maintain a positive attitude and encourage the guys.”

He explained that veterans become homeless for many reasons.

Financial trouble and a lack of support or safety nets are compounded by the psychological conditions many face. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported that some 400,000 vets have reported symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Another 200,000 have reported symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

“A lot of times, they either have mental health or alcohol and substance-abuse issues,” said social worker John Smith. “Because of those issues, they often burn their bridges with family and friends and have no where to go.”

Smith works with the men on goals they want to achieve while in transitional housing.

“Not many have an income when they arrive, so it is a matter of connecting them to benefits and finding employment.”

He never realized how widespread homelessness is among veterans until he started working with them.

“A lot of these guys are very proud and don't want to ask for help,” Smith said. “That is why they will live in their cars or their tents.”

The program gets referrals from county agencies, the Veterans Administration and homeless shelters. Veterans come from as far as Chicago and as close as Janesville.

“We are the last chance for a lot of guys,” Smith said.

Last year, 68 percent of the men in the program found independent housing, which is above the national average of 55 percent for similar kinds of programs.

Don Janes has been the program director since October.

“Many of these guys have been struggling with their lives for a long time,” he said. “Often, they just need some time to stop bouncing from one thing to the next. Each has his own unique story.”

Janes praises the community, including local businesses, who donate money and items, including toiletries, pillows, blankets and coats, to support the program.

Nationally, the number of homeless veterans appears to be dropping.

In November, a survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counted almost 58,000 homeless vets, a decrease of 24 percent during the last six years.

However, vets still make up a disproportionate number of the nation's homeless population. In fact, a federal government study of the problem in 2011 revealed that veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than other Americans. In addition, minority vets have an even greater chance of ending up on the streets or in homeless shelters.

Gross is hopeful about the future.

“Being here has given me a chance to slow down the racing thoughts in my head and to think about what I want to do in life,” he said. “I feel like I'm a success story, but I'm not back on my feet yet.”



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