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Homeless Veterans Get a Fresh Start

Non-profit group helps mend the lives of displaced veterans by offering housing and jobs.

Don Andrews was a man with a plan. He joined the U. S. Marine Corps as soon as he turned 18 in 1987, planning to take advantage of the G.I. Bill to attend college afterward. While in the service, he purposely chose administrative duties believing the skills he learned would transition into civilian life where he could become a productive citizen in the country he had served. 

For a young man thinking he had few options after graduating Marengo Community High School, the military seemed like the best way to go. 

After being discharged in 1990, which included a year in Okinawa, Japan, and two months in Saudia Arabia for Operation Desert Storm, Andrews returned to his Marengo home but not for long. 

After a few months he moved in with his sister and her family in Belvidere hoping to improve his job prospects.  But he never got the administrative work he had trained for—his work experience and military background didn’t impress employers. 

He did finally land a job–at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant in Belvidere as a dishwasher. It would be one of many dead-end, low-paying jobs that would be his sustenance for the next 26 years. And had it not been for the fact one of the managers was himself a former Marine, he may have been looking a lot longer for that first job.

“Looking back on that, that’s kind of disappointing that I got hired for this horrible, horrible job because I was in the Corps,” he said. 

Andrews’s story is not uncommon among veterans from World War II to the War in Iraq today. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are 107,000 homeless veterans every night in the United States. Most are men with about 5 percent being women veterans, and many suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, post-traumatic stress syndrome and other maladies. 

The VA estimates that another 1.5 million veterans are at risk of homelessness due to poverty and lack of supportive networks.

Andrews considers himself lucky that through the North Chicago VA, now the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, he found housing and work in 2008 through NASA Education Corporation in Crystal Lake. 

NASA Education was founded in 1999 by John Blanchard, who himself had been homeless and unemployed in 1986 after serving in the U.S. Navy for eight years. Like Andrews, Blanchard had definite plans for life after the military, but he also found his military skills didn’t translate into civilian jobs. His first job was working in a grocery store. He lived in his car for four months and with friends other times. 

“Being back in civilian life was like a tunnel,” he said. “I just wanted to get through the emotions and get through this tunnel and maybe someday there will be light down there,” he said. “I was just flopping through my life at that point.” 

Blanchard’s mother paid for his tuition at the Western Wisconsin Technical Institute. He discontinued his course of study there in 1991 when he was offered a job to provide technical software support with the Easter Seals. Not long after he joined IBM, a bigger job with bigger responsibilities. In 1994 he started his own hardware maintenance and operating system support company, National Association of System Administrators, Inc. (NASA)  followed by NASA Corp. in 1998.

After seeing homeless veterans panhandling near Chicago Union Station, Blanchard felt inspired to help his fellow vets put their lives back together, realizing but for a few lucky breaks that he may have been one of them. 

NASA Education recruits homeless veterans from its sponsored Stand Down events for Project Fresh Start which offers job training, transitional housing, food, clothing, counseling and more. 

When Andrews was put in touch with NASA Education in 2008, he was housed in one of the two Crystal Lake apartment buildings owned by the corporation. Blanchard purchased the buildings as well as a single-family home in 2005. 

Like everyone who comes to NASA Education, Andrews had to abide by the rules prohibiting drug and alcohol use and to help out at the thrift shop and NASA Corp.’s headquarters in Crystal Lake until he found work. Once employed, tenants are required to pay rent. Most apartments have two to three adult residents; women veterans and children of veterans are accepted as well.

He found employment two months ago when an Arlington Heights manufacturer called NASA Education seeking veterans for open positions. When the company moves to its new plant in Carpentersville in August, Andrews plans to move there as well and get his own apartment. 

Similarly, Gwen Lowe of Waukegan found help through NASA Education after 26 years of homelessness in Chicago and Las Vegas.

Like Andrews and Blanchard, she enlisted right after high school in 1979 and had plans for her life after her service with the U.S. Air Force. Those dreams were cut short when after two months she discovered she was pregnant. She left the Air Force and returned to Chicago.

She didn’t find herself homeless until she went to Las Vegas in 1995 to visit her ailing mother. By this time Lowe had a serious crack cocaine addiction which she had been supporting through prostitution and her young son had been sent to live with her husband’s family in Virginia. Unable to find work in Las Vegas, she spent the next three years as a prostitute, doing drugs and living outdoors. Members of a little church befriended her, creating a cubbyhole for her to sleep in at night, she said. 

Lowe had better luck finding and keeping jobs in Chicago, where she worked four years at a Chicago post office and seven tax seasons as a receptionist at a major income tax accounting firm. 

Lowe credits NASA Education for breaking her cycle of homelessness and drug addiction in 2008. She said she was treated with respect, helped to overcome her drug addictions, housed and connected with her estranged son who she hadn’t seen in 26 years. 

“I’ve been in a million treatment places, but never like NASA,” she said. “They motivated me to want to stay clean and helped me become financially responsible. I love my life now.” 

After living a year at NASA Education, she moved to her own place in Waukegan while working seasonally as a concession stand attendant at Soldier Field; a job she held prior to finding NASA. 

Unlike many assistance programs for veterans, NASA Education is funded solely through Blanchard’s NASA companies. While NASA Education has a staff counselor, most support is provided by volunteers, many who are employees of one of Blanchard’s two companies. 

“The hardest thing people have to understand is why do what we do it if we don’t get any money,” Blanchard said. 

There are resources that depend on outside funding, like Woodstock’s Transitional Living Services (TLS). The non-profit organization was founded in 1996 by a group of local veterans which opened its 20-unit facility in Hebron in 2001. 

“Our beds are always full,” said Executive Director Alan Belcher, and there’s typically a waiting list on top of that. 

The VA funding that helps support the program limits veterans to a two-year stay but Belcher said that most are on their own before that. 

Belcher said that many of the veterans from the Vietnam War are transitioning from the streets to permanent housing and today he is seeing younger veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan coming to TLS. He said the poor economy adds to the difficulty of finding jobs for returning vets. 

While Andrews, now 42-years old, considers himself one of the fortunate ones with a place to live and a job, his experience has left him apprehensive about his future. 

“To be honest, I try not to look too far forward,” he said. “I’m just kind of rolling with the punches now.”

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