Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=221686
Story Retrieval Date: 12/6/2013 10:01:42 PM CST
A U.S. Navy veteran, college graduate and devout churchgoer, 54-year-old Larry Bryant defies persistent stereotypes about the homeless.
Growing up in Garfield Park with nine siblings and his parents, Bryant joined the Navy with his high school best friend in 1977.
“[The Navy] gave me an opportunity to get out of my community to see the rest of the world,” he said, “despite never learning how to swim.” During his service he traveled throughout Europe and the Caribbean.
Hoping to study electronics after the Navy, Bryant enrolled in a series of colleges, including DeVry University, Malcolm X College, University of Illinois at Chicago and Northeastern Illinois University, where he also studied criminal justice.
“People are saying okay, you got all these degrees, what are you going to do with them?” he said. “The reason why I really pursued education, 'cause coming up out of a family of 10, somebody should go to college, so I was the only one in my family that ever pursued a college degree.”
The degrees did not translate into steady employment, and Bryant never married. Beginning in 2007, Bryant began living in the Church of the Brethren, the Garfield Park church he’d attended since the age of 8. In 2012, a friend told him about a new housing development for veterans that had just been built down the street from his old high school.
“I came in and within a month, they thought that I was right for this place,” he said. He moved into a Hope Manor suite with a roommate in August 2012, and has recently found work as a security guard.
“Mainly my day-to-day, before I found employment, was seeking employment,” he said. “And some of the days was frustrating, but I wasn't the only one out here seeking it, so, that was a little motivational for me, to say, well, I'm not alone. A lot of people out there [are] trying to find employment.”
Bryant said he looked forward to earning his way out of Hope Manor into independence. He credits faith in God for getting him as far as he has.
“I'm following His will,” he said. “So far, so good. I got 54 years walking with Him. A lot of people didn't get that. But I got it, so I have to be thankful. You have to be thankful.”
Marvin McGee served in the elite U.S. Army Special Forces in the early 1980s, but he was homeless and struggling with addiction before he came to Hope Manor, a housing facility in East Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side.
“I got therapy, PTSD, ATP. I have schooling at night, I have church, and that's a lot on my plate,” McGee, 50, said. “But the thing I've found out is that what’s keeping me busy is keeping me sober.”
“I've been clean now since February 11, and that's been the most beautiful feeling in the world,” he added. “I've never felt like this in my life.”
McGee is one of nearly 100 residents taking advantage of Hope Manor’s studio and suite apartments, supportive programing, job training and community outreach. The Hope Manor development is run by Volunteers of America Illinois, which on April 25 broke ground on Hope Manor II, a new facility in Englewood for homeless female veterans.
But despite strong support from the Englewood community for the project, some Chicagoans have reservations about bringing a vulnerable population into a neighborhood notorious for violence, substance abuse and gang activity.
The Hope Manor projects work to address a large-scale need. More than 1,100 veterans in Illinois are homeless, out of a reported 14,395 homeless individuals statewide, according to a 2010 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nearly 63,000 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night, according to a 2012 HUD estimate. Another 1.4 million veterans are at risk for becoming homeless due to factors like poverty, lack of support networks and subpar living conditions, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The original Hope Manor opened in January 2012. Veterans must complete a psychosocial evaluation to determine if they’re a suitable match for the facility and its services. The building has 50 units, 30 of which are studios, while the rest are divided between two- and three-bed suites.
Those residing in the studio apartments, which are Section 8 project-based voucher units, may stay as long as they qualify and pay their portion of the rent, but anyone living in a roommate situation must become independent and move out within two years. Nearly every bed in Hope Manor is filled.
Honoring vets with support
Brandon Crow, chief program officer and director of clinical services at Hope Manor, said he sees the project as a way to honor veterans and their service, as well as a means to support homeless veterans moving toward independence and self-sufficiency.
“I think a misconception is that homelessness is all about money, having it or not having it, and that's not always true,” he said. “It's not always the change in the pocket that's the issue, it's something about the ways in which they manage what they do have.”
While male and female veterans both must deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and poverty, female veterans require additional considerations, including that many female veterans may have been sexually assaulted either within the military or while they were homeless, and that these veterans may have dependent children.
Crow said that Hope Manor was originally intended to be a mixed- gender facility, but that a number of considerations halted those plans, including Department of Veterans Affairs regulations and female veterans’ own sense of safety in a largely male environment. Hope Manor II will provide housing and supportive services for more than 70 veteran-headed households, according to Volunteers of America Illinois.
Current Hope Manor residents said they were grateful for the opportunity to start over and get back on their feet.
“When I came here, I really felt out of place,” McGee said. “And now I’m seeing beautiful things around me. [Hope Manor has] always helped me in my transition and things that I need and places that I need to go. They keep me on track.”
Larry Bryant, 54, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, lived in a Garfield Park church for five years before coming to Hope Manor in the summer of 2012. He said he takes advantage of the computer bank and library on a regular basis.
“It’s wonderful,” Bryant said, and added that he’d found “good camaraderie with the guys.”
Crow said that having a building full of veterans creates an immediate sense of community.
“Whatever anxieties, especially men, have about developing new relationships, the veteran status is an immediate in to having a conversation,” he said. “I think it's also that they can refer back to certain codes of honor or expectations, so they walk into these conversations with a common language.”
Scouting a welcoming community
Hope Manor almost didn’t come to Garfield Park. The original site was within the 28th Ward, which at the time of the proposal was represented by Ald. Ed Smith, who retired in 2010.
A vocal community group resisted the project, and “the alderman withdrew his support pretty much at the last minute,” Crow said.
Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. (27th) said he leaped at the chance to have Hope Manor in his ward. He said his constituents were thrilled to welcome the facility.
“[Hope Manor] gives [veterans] a step up,” he said in a phone interview. “The community thinks it’s a great thing. A lot of people have siblings and relatives who are veterans, and they want to help them live on their own.”
Veterans living at Hope Manor have become involved with Garfield Park community activities, in addition to those within their own walls. Last summer several residents volunteered at a backpack drive at Morton Elementary School, which is across the street from Hope Manor.
“Even the ones who were in wheelchairs or have difficulty walking, one would sit on the stoop of this building that's right on the alley, another one rode his wheelchair back and forth,” patrolling the school grounds or helping students cross the street, said Crow. “There is natural reward to getting outside yourself and helping other people,” he added.
Staff and residents at Hope Manor plan to repeat the backpack drive this coming August, and to bring it to another elementary school in Englewood.
When Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) heard that Volunteers of America Illinois was looking for a site for a second Hope Manor, she fought hard to bring the development to Englewood, said Debbie Blair, chief of staff for Thompson.
“The project is a very welcome entity into the 16th Ward,” Blair said. She called Thompson’s constituents “elated” at the new development.
“The residents are just excited about A, a new project in the 16th Ward, and B, being able to provide for people who have provided for us, case in point, the veterans.”
Not everyone is convinced
Yet despite the plaudits Hope Manor has earned so far, not everyone is convinced that veterans looking to distance themselves from patterns of substance abuse and violence will be able to find that separation in Englewood.
“Hope Manor is a great idea in so many ways,” said Rochelle Crump, president of National Women Veterans United and former assistant director for the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. “You just have to look at it in a realistic view. You're eager to house [homeless veterans] and that's great, but long-term, are you hurting them or are you helping them, putting them back in that environment?”
Crump said that while she admired Hope Manor’s work, she was displeased by the decision to put these developments in neighborhoods on the city’s West and South sides.
“They're trying to change the community, but right now, it's struggling with violence, they're struggling with unemployment, they're struggling with poverty,” she said. “You look at that and you're saying, how will you put more-or-less unhealthy people in an environment that is going to further delay their growth?”
McGee agreed that Englewood is a hard place to build a facility like the one that’s helped him.
“I know that South Side area, and I just do not see those people complying with the veterans,” he said.
McGee said that he was a longtime resident of Englewood, that he often returns to do youth outreach, and that his mother still lives there, where she’s made her home for more than 40 years. It was also in Englewood that McGee said he became addicted to heroin. He said he remains concerned about drugs getting into Hope Manor II.
“How're you going to get the veteran in and out of there without someone getting hurt or being off drugs?” he said. “And the veteran is already weak: he's not strong when he comes here. When you get this transitional housing, you're fighting for your life then.”
Crump said she wondered what message it sends to house veterans in often-troubled neighborhoods.
"So when they become on the downside, do we say they're not worthy of living in those other communities?" Crump said. "We want to have parades for them, we want to say 'Woo woo, they served our country,' but then we don't allow them to live in the communities which would help them benefit life better."
"I just think that we can collectively, as a nation, look at more ways to make them feel that their service counted, and that they are worthy of living where they would choose to live," she said.
Crow acknowledged that the decision to build Hope Manor II in Englewood was controversial.
“We recognize what community we're building in. We recognize the challenges that public housing very often has,” he said. Crow added that Hope Manor II has planned extensive security infrastructure, including a fenced-in green space just for residents, security cameras and 24-hour onsite security.
“But we'll be doing a lot not to make it seem like it's an institution,” he said. “We want to engage the people who live there in wanting to protect and patrol and make sure they keep the space as nice as it is, or will be, and to make sure it stays as safe as is necessary given the community that it's being built in.”
In the end, bringing a large development into a neighborhood like Englewood may prove beneficial for both the veterans living there and the community, Crow said.
“If you have land occupied by people who care about what happens, who will call the police, who will be active in the community, who are spending their dollars in that community, it pulls in more businesses, it gets other people involved, and it reduces crime over time,” he said.
Crow said that present Hope Manor residents remain focused on helping each other, and that they hope more veterans can benefit from similar services, in Garfield Park and in Englewood.
“The way they run this facility really helps, because they don't let you get too personal without opening up,” said McGee. “There’s somebody for everybody to talk to if you’re having problems. They won’t let you just sit around and ignore your problems.”
Bryant agreed. “It's not like everybody is isolated in this place,” he said.
“I'm totally blessed,” said Bryant. “[God] could have had me anywhere… but he got me here.”