by Justin McKinney, Jacob Runnels and Jessa Schroeder.
Note: the Freedom House has asked we do not disclose last names of veterans in order to respect the privacy of the organization as well as the veterans themselves.
For veterans who don’t have anywhere to call their own home, they can enlist in the services of Freedom House.
According to its website, Freedom House is a program organized by the Family & Community Services (F&CS) of Northeast Ohio to “support homeless veterans in our community in their efforts to achieve greater self sufficiency” that serves Portage and other surrounding counties. F&CS has one Freedom House in Kent, Ohio, where its 10 staffers help provide enough beds for 14 veterans, as well as two handicapped veterans.
“When a resident comes in, we have three goals for that resident: health, income and affordable housing,” Freedom House program director Colleen Reaman said. “That’s what we want them to leave with.”
Reaman said the Freedom House receives 65 percent of its funding through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) while the rest is provided through grants and donations. She said there’s a three-step process for a veteran to stay at the Freedom House.
She said a veteran interested must call the Freedom House themselves which will result in an interview with the program director and an evaluation with a VA liaison to look up their records. Each veteran is allowed either 24 months in one facility or six to nine months in multiple facilities, whichever comes first.
The facility is male-only because there aren’t many female veterans requesting assistance. However, the Freedom House works with the building next door to house female veterans if they have any.
The liaison will then inspect the person’s records and determine if they’ve used their total staying time yet or if any other “red flags” arise.
“There could be a lot of history with violence through other actions and the VA has records of that,” she said. “They may not be compatible in this [facility].”
Reaman said there are services for each resident to help them find jobs and apartments, as well as mental health services for those with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We have group therapies every day, five days a week which involve art, music, creative writing, drama and life skills as alternatives to talk therapy,” she said. “If we have a combat veteran who we feel needs extra counseling we have a social worker who comes in and counsels combat veterans.” PTSD = choice to get social worker.
She said there’s no obligation for those with PTSD to have a social worker help them out but rather it’s their choice.
Some of the guidelines for staying in the Freedom House include no violence and no drinking or drug use, as facilitated by the staffers administering random breathalyzer and drug tests. If caught drinking or doing drugs, the Freedom House will work with the person to make sure they don’t repeat the offense, such as setting up earlier curfews or signing them up for support meetings.
She said one of the biggest challenges the Freedom House faces is getting the veterans to acclimate to their new temporary homes, where privacy isn’t much of a thing when it comes to living in a room with two other men. Reaman said a hard part for her to experience is during the first interview when people have to tell her their stories.
“In the interviews, most of them can’t even look at you and many of them are in tears because they’re at the lowest point in their lives,” she said. “They’ve used all of their resources and have nowhere else to turn. But then… when we get someone moving out at that point into their own apartment — sometimes it’s their first time even having an apartment — there’s a smile on their face and they’re ready to go out the door.”
Walter Williams is a Cold War — between the Korean and the Iraq/ Afghanistan wars — army veteran who used to drive trucks for a living. However, after finding out he had diabetes can consulting with the VA, he was told he needed to “stop doing what I was doing” and recommended he stay at the Freedom House.
“When I was driving trucks, I was living in my truck so I didn’t have a permanent residence,” he said. “It wasn’t my truck to own, so when I had to leave the company I had to leave the truck, so I had no residence.”
He lived in the Freedom House in September, 2011, and he said the Freedom House helped get him “back on my feet again.” Now, he lives down the street from the Freedom House and volunteers by helping drive veterans to where they need to be, as well as running the aftercare program — a fellowship where he talks to veterans once a month — for those who leave Freedom House.
“I wasn’t from Portage County and I didn’t know anybody,” he said, in response to what inspired him to volunteer. “I wanted to at least get some knowledge about the neighborhood and the people I’d be dealing with.”
Before finding out about the Freedom House, he said he didn’t have any acknowledgement of the VA system after he was injured in the war, so he heard from word of mouth how to get his benefits. However, he said his benefits never came, so he “gave up on the VA,” but eventually consulted with them after he needed health insurance. He wasn’t able to get his VA benefits until 2009, 23 years after getting leaving the army, because of a mix-up with his records involving his “very common” name being mixed with other people of the same name.
Williams said when he lived at the Freedom House, he said there weren’t any therapy programs available at the time. However, he said the Freedom House’s knowledge of the VA helped educate Williams about his full benefits.
“As long as I live down the street, or possibly even not, I’ll still volunteer here,” he said. “This is my support, even after leaving Freedom House.”
Brett began living at Freedom House at the beginning of April. As a 28-year-old veteran, he found himself homeless, unemployed and diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go, and Freedom House was a definite place I could go,” he said. “I have three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and with all the time I have staying here, I can try to get my life together and focused.”
Brett said he mentioned he had been applying to jobs and actively looking for work.
“I was working about eight months ago, then I got laid off and was unemployed for awhile,” he said. “Now I’m just looking for everything and anything really.”
Brett was referred to the Freedom House during his stay at a psychiatric ward hospital for PTSD, where the clinicians felt he would be qualified to stay because he was homeless.
When talking about his experience with PTSD, Brett said there had been a couple times during his deployments when many frightening and life-changing incidents happened.
“The second time [dealing with PTSD] was more relevant because I saw my friend die and put in a body bag because of a car accident, [but] it wasn’t combat related,” he said. “There were times when I was around bombs that went off and vehicles got blown up or destroyed, and dead men on the side of the road.”
Brett serviced twice in Iraq, from 2007 to 2008 and again from 2009 and 2010. When he talked about deployment, Brett said he felt the environment and entire experience could be enough to shake up anyone emotionally and physically.
Despite what he’s been through, the Freedom House has been able to find him the help he need. He said someone from the VA will occasionally talk to the vets about how to find jobs and get help with schooling.
“They help you to try and find employment, but for the most part they are helping people who want to help themselves,” he said. “They will point you in the right direction and help lead you there.”
Although he was rejected on his first claim for benefits by the VA, he feels he has a solid chance this time because of his recent PTSD diagnosis.
“For me, personally, I think the VA did alright,” he said.”Hopefully this time it will be handled in a more orderly and timely manner.”
Christian began living at Freedom House at the beginning of April. He served in the Iraq war in 1989, 1995 as well as from 2003 to 2005.
“I am a disabled veteran with PTSD [and] I’m also a recovering addict,” he said. “I have been clean coming up on nine months now, and I plan to keep it that way.”
When his service came to an end, Christian moved back to his home in Maine before eventually moving to Ohio to start a new life working in Hudson as a line cook and going to nursing school.
“I used my GI bill previously to go to school and the VA has actually sent me back to school,” he said. “I get to help people, and I get a lot out of that.”
He said everyone at the Freedom House has been very helpful to him, especially with helping him “get back on my feet so I could get a place to stay [and] save up some money.”
“It’s allowed me to get back into society,” he said. “Living here is great, and I’m overwhelmed.”
Christian said he’s taking classes about trauma and how to deal with it while “you can move on in other areas of life.” He said the Freedom House holds different kinds of therapy classes every day, as well as morning meditation groups.
He has been attending therapy sessions daily since he moved into the Freedom House. In the past, he admitted to having roughly 10 years of experience with different forms of therapy.
Christian recently was released from a long-term treatment facility through the VA for substance abuse. He even goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings to stay connected.
“It started with prescription pills after I had an operation, and when I couldn’t get the prescription pills at the pharmacy, it turned to me trying to get them elsewhere,” he said. “It’s no way to live. It’s horrible.”
The VA has helped Christian through drug-related rehabilitation and PTSD therapy for the past 10 years. Aside from therapy, Christian receives free medical care through the VA.
“They recognize my disability, so I receive an extra $900 a month that is coming in,” he said.
The extra money helps Christian take care of child support.
“I am able to make sure my kids are taken care of and that is very important to me.”
Overall, Christian feels “grateful” and “very fortunate” to be living at the Freedom House as it gave him the second chance he needed at living a stable and drug-free life.
“I was always too proud to accept help and I didn’t do well,” he said. “When I didn’t do well I wasn’t dealing with problems right. I had a relapse, and with that relapse, I had an overdose. I could have died and luckily I was brought to the hospital. That was my changing moment. The Freedom House has given me a head-start on life.”