New veterans services focus on homes, jobs

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JOLIET – It’s been 35 years since Eugene Orton was in the Army. But he recently found himself in a predicament facing many veterans coming home from overseas these days.

Orton, 55, needed a place to live.

He had no place to go.

“This is beautiful,” he said last week when he was brought to Friends & Family Place, a home for homeless veterans in Joliet.

Orton said he only recently became aware services were available to him when a friend suggested he call a Veterans Affairs hotline.

That call eventually led him to Tom Deegan, a social worker for the VA’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program. Deegan said VA services increasingly focus on homelessness and unemployment, not just for older veterans such as Orton, but for soldiers coming home for the first time from military service.

“There’s a lot more of that going on,” Deegan said. “I think it has a lot to do with coming back to a changed economy.”

The demand for college degrees in the workplace is making it harder for young veterans, many of whom went into the military right after high school, he said.

“You have to have an education not just to get ahead, but to get a job,” Deegan said.

Orton's new home is one of three Joliet houses for homeless veterans run by Catherine Beavers.

Beavers believes veterans today face unique challenges compared to past eras, when the job market was more welcoming.

“Things were different. You could get a job in a factory or find some kind of work,” Beavers said. “I have one guy who’s going to move in. He’s been looking for three years, and he can’t find anything.”

Homelessness may be more of an issue for veterans moving back to urban areas. But it still is a factor in Morris and other small towns, said Ken Buck, superintendent of the Grundy County Veterans Assistance Commission.

Veterans coming to smaller communities tend to find a place to stay, he said.

“They just don’t have an address of their own,” Buck said. “They’re staying with their friends and family until they work their way through the system.”

Veterans face some of the same employment problems as everyone else, he said.

“There is a lack of opportunity for everybody,” Buck said.

Kristi Kiper-McNichol, superintendent of the Will County Veterans Assistance Commission, said there are programs being created to help veterans convert their military experience into civilian jobs.

One example, she said, is the Military Medical Corpsman to Practical Nurse program at Joliet Junior College.

“In comparison to the Vietnam War era and possibly even the late ’90s during the Gulf War era, there is a large concentration by employers on college education,” Kiper-McNichol said. “It used to be a high school diploma and a factory job to support your family.”

She said one challenge is just to make veterans aware of the help available.

That was the situation for Orton, who said he had not even thought help was available to him until he was prompted by a friend.

“She said, ‘Gene, why don’t you call the hotline and find out what’s going on?’ ” he said.