Winning the battle against homeless vets

By Matt Porter |

Published 08/28 2014 11:15PM

Updated 08/29 2014 09:45AM

ILLINOIS -- For decades, tens of thousands of veterans have lived on the streets, but those numbers are actually decreasing. The federal government has been aggressively pursuing ways to get veterans into homes since 2008 and new numbers from the Federal Housing and Urban Development program shows a reduction of 40 percent of veterans living on the street in the last four years.

Three decades after leaving the Navy, Rex Betts still hasn't found his spot in civilian life.

"I'd just never been able to settle into what would be the norm,” Betts said, “the white picket fence, nine to five."

Now, Betts lives at the Spring Street Renaissance Veterans Home; a temporary living program for homeless veterans or those bordering on it. Betts had an apartment through the Salvation Army, but he came to Spring Street Renaissance because he needed more help dealing with his personal problems.

"Depression being one of them,” Betts said. “If I'm not interacting with people the way I need to, I can fall into a dull, drab space."

A dull space Betts said can lead to dangerous behaviors. After leaving the service, he lost the structure given to him through the military and found himself abusing alcohol or worse.

"I made some wrong choices. I've been incarcerated,” he said.

Spring Street Renaissance Executive Director Penny Harris said the home provides veterans a chance to rebuild their lives. Spring Street is associated with its parent organization Fifth Street Renaissance; another facility for the homeless.

Harris said the decision to open a veterans-only home arose out of the special problems of those returning from combat zones.

"We were serving veterans, but veterans had different needs,” Harris said.

She said veterans deal with particular issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses resulting from their overseas experiences. She even suggested vets help each other and recover better together.

"There is a camaraderie that comes naturally with people that have been in the military regardless of what branch,” Harris said.

The Federal Department of Veterans Affairs helped build the more than $2 million facility, and provides money for food and supplies. In the last four years, aggressive campaigns, locally and nationally, have reduced the homeless population by almost half.

"They have served and protected our country,” Harris said, “and one homeless veteran is too many."

For vets like Betts, he knows this is his best chance.

"I have a two-year window to literally truly change my life,” Betts said.

The Spring Street home houses 15 veterans. They work with an on-site caseworker, who is also a veteran, to build up their personal and professional lives.

The Spring Street Renaissance said most vets only use half of their allotted two-year residency before they move to a more permanent placement.

Copyright 2016 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.