Veteran homelessness/poverty is a huge problem all across America. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that over 39,000 veterans go to sleep homeless every night, and that 1.4 million veterans are considered “at risk” of homelessness (due to things like poverty, overcrowded/subpar housing and lack of support networks). Around 11 percent of all homeless people are veterans, around 45 percent of homeless veterans are either Black or Latino, and around 50 percent of veterans are in between the ages of 18-50. And Chicago is no exception. As of 2016, 16 percent of Chicago’s unsheltered homeless were veterans, which despite being lower than Chicago’s percentage from 2014 (27 percent), is still higher than the national average. So to explore the faces of service in our veterans issue, the Defender profiled two organizations in Chicago dedicated to assisting those who have served our country.
DOLL, INC and The Smith Residences
Doll, Inc, run by Doll Smith, is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization that’s currently working toward building a village/community for homeless veterans suffering from PTSD, and providing them with “a community-based opportunity to live in a shared home that offers an opportunity for personal growth and development.” Doll, Inc also provides “diverse and unique services that will ensure progressive steps to help these veterans move from homeless shelter to transitional to permanent housing.”
Doll, Inc was started in 2011, originally with the mission of assisting homeless female veterans and their families. However, when the company was moved over to the Ford Heights projects, they found that they simply had too much space to only assist women, and thus, amended the vision to include both men and women. Since then, they’ve acquired 9.2 acres of land from Cook County and are working to turn those 9.2 acres into a fully fledged, 96 townhome village, where veterans will be able to live, get transportation to jobs/job interviews, and live in a community of other people who’ve served. However, one barrier stands in their way– funding.
In order to finish this project, Doll, Inc needs to raise 18 million dollars, and they need to raise it quickly. They’ve had this project for three years, and because of how long it’s taken have been threatened by the Ford Heights projects with rescinding of thier ownership of the land. Smith said: “I’ve been working with the Buffalo Soldiers, UAW Local 551, Ace Hardware… All of these are veterans, coming out to help so we can move in veterans before it gets cold.”
So now, in order to get all the funding they need, Smith and Doll Inc plan to continue pushing. They plan to network with as many people as possible, and to get government officials like Tammy Duckworth onboard and active. But most importantly, they simply need help. They need, in the words of Smith, “Anybody who has spare time who can do some volunteer work, make phone calls for us, help raise money… We just need people to help us get these units done, one at a time.” Volunteers can call Tina Augustus at (773) 931-2145.
For years, the RTW Veteran Center has been a fixture in the community, as a place where homeless veterans could go and receive three free meals a day, 360 days out of the year. It started with veterans coming to a fish fry ran by veteran “Doc” Habeel and his wife, Arnetha, and then coming back the next day for leftovers. And then the next day, for anything. That day, the two of them pledged that no veteran would ever leave their home hungry. When they started off, they could only afford to cook beans and rice. “My wife is from Alabama by way of the West Side, so she can do something with some beans, some rice and some cornbread,” Doc said. “If you got somebody that knows how to put that together, you won’t even miss meat. And for the longest, that’s all we had. Beans and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
In the springtime though, after asking the alderman for permission, Doc and Arnetha used the vacant lots next to them to start a garden to grow food and offset some of the cost of buying groceries. However, because they didn’t fence the garden off, the garden became a free garden for the community, and children started to frequent the garden, as well as partake of the beans and rice. Once the children started asking for things to do to help them stay out of trouble, the Young Soldiers Leadership program was founded, a program that instills military principles and standards (such as honor, duty, respect and loyalty) in kids from ages 8-16.
However, all this work, shared in large part between Doc and Arnetha, took a toll. In 2015, Arnetha’s health started to decline, and the building started to be hit with city code violations. By 2017, the program was understaffed, underfunded, and under pressure, and in January, the center closed for service. However, although the building was closed, the work didn’t stop– without fail, the center’s volunteers picked up donated food every day from the Harvest Support program and dropped the food off to various local organizations and religious facilities who collaborate with the RTW Center. In addition, over a dozen families still regularly receive donations of food, clothes and furniture.
And now, in November 2017, the RTW Center will open in a new location: the Chicago
Medical Training Center at 7415 South East End, Suite 113, where they will work in tandem with other educational organizations in that building to give veterans job training and placements. With this new building, they hope to be able to return in full force, better than ever. As Doc said, “We may not be in the building, but we’re still in the house.”