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Lake County veterans among Lovell FHCC’s ‘permanent housing placements;’ top percentage over target in VA secretary’s 2022 challenge

Veterans and the social workers who helped them find Permanent Housing Placements in 2022 pose in the Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans at Lovell Federal Health Care Center
Veterans and the social workers who helped them find Permanent Housing Placements in 2022 pose in the Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans at Lovell Federal Health Care Center. Left to right back row is Social Worker Greg Mavromatis, Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing Program Coordinator Jennifer Hammond, Army veteran Teri Scott, Social Worker Erica O’Neill and Navy Vietnam veteran Robin Baylor. Marine Corps veteran Raymond Peeples is kneeling in the front.

Raymond Peeples was a Marine who struggled with drugs, violence and “a lot of different things” in the decades after his service in the early 1970s.

His wife died. He suffered from depression. At his lowest point, he attempted suicide. He is clear about why he’s still here – as in still alive.

“I want to live because of the programs here,” Peeples said. “I have hope today. The VA saved my life.”  

Robin Baylor lied so he could join the Navy at 15 and served on destroyers, including in Vietnam. After the war, he took a bus home and was spit on and called a “baby-killer” instead of welcomed. He hid his PTSD for decades, through three marriages, many jobs and bankruptcy, and found himself homeless in 2022 when he lost the RV, he called home. “I had no idea these programs existed; I didn’t even know about the VA,” Baylor said. “Now I don’t know what I would have done without it.”

Teri Scott joined the Army National Guard and mobilized for Iraqi Freedom. She met her husband in the Army, and his physical and mental health challenges were the reason they left their home in Louisiana and moved to Gurnee, Ill.

“We found ourselves on the other side of the country with no jobs and two kids, our only income coming from the VA.” She had been “avoiding the VA,” but her family was living in a hotel with no hope of finding a place they could afford, so Scott – who started out as a social work major in college – called a number she knew would lead to resources. She called the Veterans Crisis Line.

The three veterans traveled very different roads but shared a destination last year that led to permanent housing. Because of the unfailing efforts of the social workers in the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center Homeless Veterans Program, the three are counted in the 117 “permanent housing placements” the program made in 2022. It was more than 200 percent over the target the team set as part of the VA secretary’s 38,000 Permanent Housing Placement (PHP) National Challenge, and therefore the highest in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Permanent housing placements provided by Lovell FHCC staff and nonprofit community partners included apartments or houses veterans could rent or own, often with a subsidy to help make the housing affordable. Lovell FHCC Homeless Program staff also helped some veterans end their homelessness by reuniting with family and friends.

The Lovell FHCC team’s achievement was announced Jan. 27 on a call with VA Secretary Denis McDonough, other VA leaders, VA medical center directors, and homeless veterans program teams from across the nation. McDonough said the VA housed 40,401 veterans nationwide, meeting and exceeding its national goal by more than 6.3 percent in 2022.

Director Dr. Robert Buckley said Lovell FHCC’s goal was achieved “through the hard work and dedication of our Lovell FHCC homeless programs staff, our grantees and contractors, and our valued community partners. The progress we’re seeing with ending veteran homelessness in Northeast, Ill., our area of responsibility, shows that we have the right solutions to end homelessness for all veterans we care for.”

When asked what their secret to success was, the Lovell FHCC team on the VA secretary’s call credited their boss, Delia De Avila, for her leadership. De Avila, chief of the Lovell FHCC Outpatient Homeless Program, humbly deflected the praise and said it was the team members’ compassion that made the difference.

“This is not an easy task,” De Avila said. “I’m honored and proud to be part of such an incredible team. It truly is a privilege to work with them.”

Jennifer Hammond, Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program coordinator at Lovell FHCC, also credited De Avila, the wholehearted support of Lovell FHCC leaders, and team cohesion. “We have an entire team that rose to the occasion and showed up every day,” she said. “They served in every capacity, through various stages of the housing process.”

HUD-VASH combines Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) rental assistance for homeless veterans with case management and clinical services provided by Lovell FHCC. It is one of four parts of the Lovell FHCC Homeless Veterans Program. The other three are Healthcare for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) that runs the Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans, the Grant and Per Diem (GPD) Program, and Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO), which assists veterans and military members who have been arrested or are otherwise involved in the justice system. If a homeless veteran, or about-to-be homeless veteran, doesn’t qualify for housing assistance through one program, he or she frequently will be eligible for another.

Hammond said the team built on what was already working – weekly meetings to address barriers with minimal delays, daily “mini-huddles” so staff and resources were utilized to full potential, streamlining of the referral process, increased and improved communication with landlords, and showing up in person to check on housing applications.

A key component in Lovell FHCC’s housing placements is its community partners – Catholic Charities, Veterans Path to Hope, Lake County Veteran Assistance Commission, Midwest Veteran's Closet, Military Outreach USA, and Lake County Veteran and Family Services – to name a few. Some provide emergency and permanent housing. Others donate and even deliver the items that make the placements “home” – beds and furniture, linens, dishes and housewares, and food and clothing if needed.

Marshalling the resources available to veterans through programs such as HUD-VASH and Shallow Subsidy, and calling on their community partners, the social workers doggedly work every day until the veterans they serve have a place to call home.

In the Scott’s case, the effort was “all-hands-on-deck” to find the Army veteran and her family suitable housing.

Search for willing landlord exhausting 

Scott enlisted in the Army National Guard in 2005 and stayed for seven years. She and her husband met in 2016 while serving together. Scott was a water treatment specialist, but mainly pulled security in Iraq when she was there in 2007-2008.

When Scott explained she was facing her husband’s problems and housing instability, the Crisis Line linked her to Lovell FHCC Social Worker Erica O’Neill. 

One of the first results was O’Neill called Catholic Charities, which took over payment of the family’s hotel bill. After that, O’Neill helped Scott enroll in the HUD-VASH program.

And then O’Neill became Scott’s unofficial counselor as well as her champion.

“I would call her up all the time just because I needed someone to talk to about what I was going through,” Scott said. “I had health issues. My husband had his own issues. Our only income was from the GI Bill and disability. And we were living in a hotel with two teenagers for months. It was a lot.”

Scott, O’Neill, and other staff members from the FHCC Homeless Program and Catholic Charities, followed “any and all leads” to find the right place and a landlord willing to take a chance and rent to a veteran in the HUD-VASH program.

In addition to a tight rental market in Lake County, Hammond explained that HUD-VASH restrictions also complicated the search. It can be difficult to find landlords who will accept the vouchers, and the maximum rent allowed was limiting. Additionally, the family wanted to be in a strong school district, and they needed a place with three bedrooms – separate bedrooms for their son and daughter. 

Helping veterans find permanent housing means accommodating their families, too, Hammond said. Scott’s family “faced an extreme number of barriers,” Hammond said. It took a dedicated FHCC and community team to overcome those obstacles.

They finally found a veteran landlord in Waukegan who liked the idea of renting to fellow veterans and was willing to rent through HUD-VASH – with some handholding from Scott’s and her husband’s HUD-VASH case managers. “Since we are both veterans, we each have our own case managers,” Scott said. “Yeah, the social workers had to put up with both of us.”

Scott and her family moved into their new home after nearly eight months living out of suitcases, in one room, in three different hotels. Today she is virtually studying computer science at Colorado Technical University and expects to graduate next year and look for a cyber security job.

Scott’s journey is even more unlikely considering she was “anti-VA” at all costs – originally. “From the moment I became a veteran, I knew I wasn’t coming to the VA,” she said. “But I was told I had to sign up when I got out.”

Today, Scott is thankful. “Once we were signed up for HUD-VASH, everything started changing for the better,” she said. “We knew long-term housing was in our future. It wasn’t a theory. It was becoming more real. We just had to wait.”

Walk-In Center for Homeless Veterans changed his life

Baylor spent much of his life in Montana. He actually joined the Navy twice, the first time in 1959. When he got out in 1962, the only job he could find was one paying $1.10 an hour, not enough to live on. So, he reenlisted and ended up serving in Vietnam, on a ship, as a radio operator who talked to “spotters” on land.

After he got out for good in 1965, Baylor was a police officer and then operated an appliance business for 30 years. His first wife, the mother of his three children, died after 21 years of marriage. He said he struggled with many things in his life for many years.

In Vietnam, “I made some big mistakes,” said Baylor, who has a 80 percent service-connected disability rating.

“As a result, I had PTSD and didn’t know it. I kept all my troubles secret for 50 years. I didn’t tell my family.”

After his third marriage ended in divorce, he lived in an RV for a short time until he was scammed out of a large sum of money and left with an empty bank account in 2022. “I found myself homeless,” Baylor said. “I lost the RV, my trucks, couldn’t afford three months’ rent up front, and I also couldn’t rent because of the bankruptcy.”

He said he came to the Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans at Lovell FHCC, and O’Neill worked with Veterans Path to Hope to find Baylor an apartment in Fox Lake, Ill.

Baylor’s rental assistance came through the VA’s Shallow Subsidy initiative. Shallow Subsidy provides grants to nonprofit community organizations to then provide rental assistance to veteran households eligible under the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. Veterans may work and not lose the benefit for two years, even if their incomes – including disability payments – increase.

Baylor said SSVF Case Manager Ryan Jacobson, from Veterans Path to Hope, “has been a Godsend. He got me into a two-year program so that I am comfortable, money-wise.”

Not only was Baylor homeless when he came to Lovell FHCC, but his son, also suffering from PTSD, was, too. Today his son and granddaughter live with Baylor in the Fox Lake apartment. Baylor said Jacobson and O’Neill also helped his family with food and items he needed for the apartment.

“Ryan and Erica have helped me a lot,” Baylor said. “I’m very fortunate.”

Trouble and struggle – having a home equals peace

“At 30, 35, in my 40s, I’ve struggled with life,” said Peeples, who was a tank crewman, driver and gunner in the Marine Corps. “And I’ve been around this VA (Lovell FHCC) all that time.”

Peeples has volunteered off and on at Lovell FHCC since 2011. In recent years, he’s worked primarily in the gym at the main hospital, which he said improves his “whole state of mind.”

“Trouble” in his life included drugs, he said, and that led to him residing in Lovell FHCC’s homeless domiciliary in 2017. He’s also lived in a recovery house out of state and became homeless again. He decided to ask for help at Lovell FHCC last year and today resides in his “own place” in Zion.

“God blessed me with the ability to receive help through HUD-VASH,” Peeples said. “I feel safe, independent, and at peace,” Peeples said. “I’m able to pay my bills and have a little extra.”

The “great place” Peeples finds himself in today is due to the FHCC social workers, who he said are “kind people. I got some great help from all of them, and I still do.”

Through the Lovell FHCC Homeless Veterans Program, Peeples received furniture, a phone and help with transportation. One of his housing requirements was to live close to a bus stop, so he can take the bus where he needs to go, which includes to Lovell FHCC.

His apartment is his refuge from what he calls “triggers,” or the situations that contributed to problems for him over the years. “I can go home and shut the door and find peace,” he said. “I’m not dealing with some of the things that happen in the street.”

Lovell FHCC social worker Greg Mavromatis, who has known Peeples for more than a decade, said People’s willingness to accept help and do what he needs to do to succeed is crucial.

“Our programs can help people who help themselves,” Mavromatis said. “I always say, they save their own lives, even if it’s a struggle to move forward.”

Every one of the 117 veterans who received help from Lovell FHCC and its community partners in 2022 has a compelling story to tell about resilience, hope and human compassion. Lovell FHCC’s Walk-in Center for Homeless Veterans can be reached by calling 224-610-1148. It is in Room 170, in Bldg. 131 on Lovell FHCC’s main hospital campus in North Chicago. After hours, social workers are on call to respond.

If you are a Veteran who is experiencing homelessness or at risk for homelessness, call the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838). Visit the VA Homeless Programs website to learn about housing initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.