Army veteran finds paint-by-number help and hope - April 7, 2016

Courtesy of The Post-Tribune • April 7, 2016

By Jerry Davich • Contact Reporter

Frederick Owens described himself as homeless, jobless and on the brink of hopelessness before relocating to this area.

Last summer, the 55-year-old U.S. Army veteran was living out of his 2000 Nissan Altima in Kansas City, Mo. He was driven to desperation, he said.

“I won’t lie. I was beat up and beat down,” he told me, shaking his head.

Without realizing it, he became the stereotype we typically hear about too many military vets in our country. Owens never figured he would find a permanent home, a secure job and newfound hope in Northwest Indiana.

“And in Gary, Indiana, at that,” he said, shaking his head again. “If you told me this fact less than a year ago, I wouldn’t believe it. Heck, I just came up to this area for a visit. Look at me now.”

Owens served from 1979 to 1982. That service to Uncle Sam allowed him to be one of the fortunate veterans accepted at the Northwest Indiana Veterans Village in downtown Gary.

The impressive 44-unit, three-level residential facility was unveiled last month with special guests, guided tours and rousing speeches from officials.

I waited for the hyperbole to settle before paying a visit to Owens, who met me in the lobby sporting a crisp suit and proud smile. His artwork adorns the lobby walls. Each piece is a sort of paint-by-number creation, but Owens takes pride that he uses vibrant colors.

“It’s like an elaborate coloring book, but it’s like therapy for me,” he said while giving me a tour of the 67,000-square-foot center.

Like Owens, I won’t lie, I didn’t expect it to be so impressive. Located a block off Broadway, it stands out like a new lighthouse in a sea of neglect. It houses a rooftop garden, a workout room, a cafeteria, computer room and picnic area.

“And look at this,” Owens said excitedly, opening the door to his one-bedroom unit.

His room is spacious, completely furnished and filled with more of his artwork. He pays $580 a month, utilities included. It’s a steal for the place, with the government subsidized rent based on 30 percent of each veteran’s income, if they have an income.

“Frederick is extremely happy,” said Vernita Leslie, executive director of the Broadway Area Community Development Corp., housed inside the facility. “He is sober, working, living in a safe, affordable and clean living environment now conducive to encouraging stability.”

Stability was elusive for Owens before moving here. So was sobriety. He’s a recovering alcoholic who hopes he left his drinking days in Missouri.

While living with his stepfather in Schererville, he was referred to WorkOne, which helped him land a job at Methodist Hospitals’ Southlake campus in Merrillville. He started in October, working midnights as a custodian.

“I walk about 10 miles each night throughout that hospital,” he said, pulling out his smart phone to show an app that keeps track of his steps. “It’s a good, solid job with benefits.”

“Fred completes his work proudly and always checks with his supervisor to see what else needs to be done,” said Genora Newman-Chapman, the hospital’s manager of environmental services. “He’s a hard worker and always has a good attitude.”

Last year, Methodist Hospitals joined the Veterans Choice Program, enabling veterans to receive healthcare services when the nearest VA medical center has a lack of available specialists, a long waiting period, or a long distance away.

“We also take every opportunity to hire veterans,” said Ray Grady, president and CEO of Methodist Hospitals.

Owens also was referred to this area’s Veterans Administration services, which registered him at the Adam Benjamin Jr. VA outpatient clinic. He’s now receiving health care that also eluded him for many years.

Through the VA and other social services, he found Veterans Life Changing Services, where he lived for a few weeks. And he received mental health treatment for his alcoholism.

“I’ve been helped by so many people who were once strangers to me,” he said.

At Veterans Village, all vets are thoroughly vetted before being allowed residency and support services, such as the culinary classes Owens will be taking later this month.

“Our VA case managers and property manager worked with several transitional housing facilities, like Safe Haven, Veterans Life Changing Services and Brother Keepers, to name a few,” Leslie said. “The VA outreach team followed up on leads for those we found sleeping in tents and in their cars.”

Each veteran was screened and given assistance to secure the necessary documentation needed to prove they were disabled and homeless, she said.

Owens said, “I was a broken unit, but I keep marchin’.”

The facility’s “Housing First” philosophy is based on a national model to curb homelessness for struggling veterans.

“Many lives are changed when placed in a safe environment that includes wraparound programs and on-site case management services,” Leslie said.

The program is supported by CSH, a New York City-based organization with expertise in supportive housing, including residences prioritized for veterans, such as Veterans Village.

Thanks to federal, state and local efforts to end homelessness among veterans, there are more than 200 similar facilities across the country, according to CSH spokesman Robert W. Friant.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), along with Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, supports these facilities through a voucher program.

“Since 2008, a total of 79,000 vouchers have been awarded across the country,” Friant said.

Owens has been the appreciative recipient of this multi-agency program, as well as from the kindness of people he just met a few months ago.

“My life completely turned around since moving here,” he said, walking me toward the exit on Massachusetts Street.

“He’s a proud man,” Leslie noted.

Owens said with a firm handshake, “I honestly don’t know where I’d be. By the grace of God, it’s been a miracle.”