Our homeless heroes and how we can help

The Coast Guard Spouse of the Year shares her thoughts

Connecting Vets
January 15, 2020 - 1:33 pm
A mural painted by homeless veterans at The Joseph Center in East Saint Louis, Illinois.

Jessica Manfre

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By Jessica Manfre, 2019 AFI Coast Guard Spouse of the Year

A recent estimate by The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimates that 11% of the homeless are military veterans. As a Coast Guard spouse and social worker, I was shocked to learn this. It made me want to know what my new home state of Illinois had to offer for our veterans, so I requested a tour of The Joseph Center, located in East Saint Louis. What I found is that The Joseph Center is one of only three veteran homeless shelters in Illinois, and it is the only veteran's shelter south of Chicago, which is five hours away. 

After my visit, I was outside when a well-dressed gentleman walked over to me and commented on the New Jersey plates on my car. I explained that I was a Coast Guard spouse newly stationed in the area, and his face lit up with the biggest smile. He shared that he served 15 years of active duty in the Coast Guard himself. Soon we were talking about people we knew and where we had lived. After a few minutes, he said he had to go, and I watched him walk to the bus stop. It was then that I realized that one of our own was homeless. 

We see homeless individuals everywhere. Many people avoid eye contact or make assumptions without caring to know their stories. But these are people, our people. I’ve always adamantly believed that we have a responsibility as human beings to serve those who are most vulnerable. But even I was utterly shocked that homelessness was hitting so close to my own home. How could a person from my Coast Guard family be homeless after serving this country for so long? How do we fix it?

Studies continue to provide strong evidence that a Housing First model (an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing) is essential to combating homelessness. Mayor Herb Roach of O’Fallon, Illinois, strongly believes in this approach and is working hard with a team of people to create tiny homes for homeless veterans. 

“If there is anyone specific group of people that deserves a second opportunity to get their lives back together, it’s our veterans,” said Mayor Roach. 

He said that by having their own homes, veterans will gain back that feeling of personal responsibility and pride. 

The tiny home concept has been gaining traction in the United States as cities witness the positive impact and benefits of using this model. One of the first tiny home communities to be built was created by the non-profit, The Veterans Community Project, in Kansas City, Missouri. Each home is around 240 square feet and consists of a bed, bathroom, living room, and kitchen. 

While it all starts with a home, it doesn’t end there. This approach also comes with a community center that gives veterans access to the resources and services they desperately need. The community center in Kansas City has helped over 8,000 veterans to date. The success of this program has cities all over the United States requesting help and guidance to do the same. One of those communities is my new town of O’Fallon, Illinois. 

I asked Mayor Roach what could be done to help get the tiny home project off the ground and he quickly responded by saying that all that is needed is the land to build on. He hopes that by getting the word out, someone may have land in the Metro East St. Louis area that could be put to use for this special project. 

Mayor Roach implored citizens to help, saying, “If we can help our veterans get their personal pride and involvement back that made them the person that they were, we owe it to them.”

I tried to get that homeless Coast Guardsman out of my head, but I was still thinking about him days later. I wanted to know his story, and I desperately wanted to help him. I called the director of the shelter and said I wanted to talk to her about the homeless Coastie I met. She asked me which one. Since the Coast Guard is the smallest branch of military service – I was shocked to hear there was more than one of our own homeless. 

The United States has now been at war for nineteen years – the longest time of war in its history. Our service members are forever changed by the experiences they have all in the name of American freedom. We owe them not just our gratitude for their sacrifice but our promise of unwavering support when they come home. Don’t forget them once they hang up their uniform – they never really took it off.

 

Jessica Manfre

Jessica Manfre is the 2019 Armed Forces Insurance Coast Guard Spouse of the Year. Born and raised in Bradenton, Florida, she met her future husband while he was stationed there in 2005. Currently, the family is stationed in the St. Louis area with their two children. Jessica is an Intern for Children's Home & Aid for her final year of her Master of Social Work program. She works part time as a Crisis Intervention Specialist serving at risk youth. Jessica was recipient of a scholarship from the VFW Post 215 in New Jersey for her leadership and volunteer efforts. She remains dedicated to being a passionate advocate for Veterans and military families.