It was 7 degrees outside and Ken Champion wrapped four sleeping bags around himself as he sat in a backyard tent. That canvas shelter was home for him not long ago. He lived there for a year and a half.
By TRACI ANGEL
Special to The Star
Now Champion sleeps with a roof over his head in the northeast part of the metro area, in his own apartment. Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joesph Inc. helped him secure it through a program that assists homeless vets.
“I got really lucky,” the 42-year-old Champion said.
The program is part of a federal grant that Catholic Charities received to help veterans get into a home and back on their feet. The Salvation Army offers similar services.
Catholic Charities received its grant last summer and started accepting clients late last year.
Services extend across the metro area and also in the St. Joseph and Warrensburg areas. Veterans from 12 counties – Clay, Platte, Jackson, Cass, Lafayette, Ray, Johnson, Henry, Clinton, DeKalb, Andrew and Buchanan – in Missouri are served through the program.
For eligibility, veterans must have proper vet documentation and be honorably discharged, have families with earnings of less than 50 percent of area median income, and be willing to meet with case workers to set goals.
“Catholic Charities’ mission is to assist the poor and the vulnerable, and we saw a big need in our community of those struggling with homelessness and saw a huge deficit,” said Mark Churchill, program manager for Supportive Services for Veterans and Families.
The Veterans Affairs office has provided the money for organizations like Catholic Charities, who regularly connect with the veterans at the ground level.
“We are already out there and doing housing work with those who might qualify,” Churchill said.
The Salvation Army also received a grant to help veterans struggling with homelessness. For the second year, the Salvation Army’s Kansas and Western Missouri Division is helping veterans in Kansas. This year the assistance has spread to northwestern Missouri.
Since the start of the grant year in October, the organization has served 243 households, and 56 of these had children.
“The situation for veterans in Kansas is similar to Missouri but our service area in Missouri has a higher percentage of single male veterans concentrated in the Kansas City metro and St. Joseph areas,” said Debra Fester, veterans and recovery services coordinator for The Salvation Army, Kansas and Western Missouri division.
One aspect of the program unique to the Salvation Army is a vet peer mentoring program, which connects veterans to others who have had the same experiences.
“It’s not just about house and home, but about the whole person and circumstance,” Fester said.
Catholic Charities serves veterans who are either homeless or on the verge of it.
The veterans meet with a case manager to help them plan for finding a home and maintaining enough income to keep them there. If they don’t have a jobs they may be referred for an opening.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs can’t replicate the connection that local organizations have to assist veterans in this situation, said acting national director for the program, John Kuhn.
The department has given competitive grants to more than 150 organizations across the country that were selected because of their success in helping the targeted population, Kuhn said. The program could continue in years to come.
“Our hope is that it will keep on going and we are very happy with the results,” Kuhn said.
The grant will allow Catholic Charities to connect with 130 households this year. By early April, the organization had connected with about 60 people and 40 households.
Sue Svec, the case manager, may be working with 16 clients at any given time.
Besides housing, veterans may also be working through the aftereffects of military service, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
“Mental health is one of the major issues,” Svec said. “They are coming back and not knowing what to do.”
They may have a college degree, she said, but have lost focus.
Champion graduated from Lincoln College Prep in 1988. He took a year off between high school and continuing community college studies to try for an associate of arts degree.
But the military was always in his mind. He was in ROTC for three years during high school.
Champion liked the structure, and he thought serving his country would give him direction. He served in the Army Reserve for three years.
After the Army, he moved around and eventually returned to Kansas City and worked at a Riverside store for 11 years. When that job ended in 2007, he found himself caught in an economic downturn without a job and without a home.
Last year Champion filled out a vulnerability survey for reStart, an interfaith ministry to help the homeless, and his information was forwarded to Catholic Charities and the new homeless veterans program.
He became the first person helped by Catholic Charities, and after much paperwork, he took the keys to his own apartment.
“I feel a lot better about myself,” he said.
His own place has renewed his confidence and motivated him to find a job to keep paying his rent when his subsidy runs out at the end of this month .
Every week he checks in with Terry Clevenger at Goodwill to explore job possibilities and check on the jobs for which he has already applied. He hopes to work in a retail warehouse.
Some homeless veterans have substance abuse or felony backgrounds that also have to be addressed, Clevenger said. Shipping, receiving, warehouse and light manufacturing jobs or some service industry openings can often provide the right situation.
Veterans can use the skills they learned in the military – following orders, paying attention to detail – to prove that they are marketable, Clevenger said.
“They don’t understand how much these can come into play in the real world,” he said.
Many, like Champion, find that once they are under their own roof, the journey to self-sufficiency continues.
“Ken has come a long way,” Svec said. “He’s made progress and made an effort at everything he’s wanted to do.”