‘Unhoused heroes” are what I call veterans suffering from homelessness. Lillian Coleman is a longtime Forest Parker who has been helping homeless veterans for the past 11 years. She is a social worker at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center. Lillian and her colleagues were recently honored by Denis McDonough, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. His visit to one of their transitional housing sites was a high point in Lillian’s VA career.

Secretary McDonough met with Lillian and her colleagues at Hope Manor 1. This is a newly built, four-story building at 3053 W. Franklin Blvd. It contains 50 low-income apartments and provides services that vets need to get back on their feet. The $14 million facility is the first large-scale development specifically designed for veterans in Chicago.

Hope Manor was developed by Volunteers of America (VOA), a nonprofit organization that believes “having a safe, affordable home is a basic human right.” VOA gives a substantial grant to the VA for transitional housing. Lillian helps oversee the program that helps homeless vets transition into permanent housing. 

During his visit, Secretary McDonough was personable and complimentary. He participated in a 45-minute roundtable discussion with Lillian and her colleagues, then toured the living quarters where the veterans are housed. He was so “hands-on” that Lillian was flabbergasted. The visit culminated with Secretary McDonough presenting commemorative medallions to Lillian and her colleagues. 

The honor reflects the importance of the work they’re doing. It’s been estimated that vets make up 21% of our chronic homeless population. Many live in places that aren’t fit for humans. They can be found living in parks, under bridges and in abandoned buildings. 

Their homelessness has numerous causes. Poverty is a key factor, as many have lost their jobs. They may be suffering from mental illness and/or substance abuse. Many suffer from chronic medical conditions. Personal crises like domestic violence and evictions can be causes of homelessness. Many are battling PTSD after serving in war zones.

The program Lillian is part of provides a safety net for veterans who have experienced such crises. Their goal is help them become productive citizens again. The process starts with going out into the community to engage homeless vets. These volunteers have experience dealing with the homeless and know how to overcome their resistance to getting help. 

After they have been identified, Lillian meets with the vets at the VA to determine what assistance they are qualified to receive. She registers them in the program and an individual service plan is developed. Veterans receive a physical and are linked to the VA agency that can help them. Lillian assists them in making appointments with these providers. The VA has mental-health clinics that specialize in treating PTSD and clinics that help vets with substance-abuse issues.

The program also addresses their financial issues and helps them find jobs. Lillian determines whether they’re eligible for disability benefits and follows up after three months to see if their needs are being met.

She is convinced that many Forest Park residents have a heart for the homeless and points to the small food receptacle near the library and the refrigerator in front of the Community Center. Homeless people are receiving medical care and taking showers near the Desplaines Blue Line station. The St. Vincent DePaul Society operates a food pantry at St. Bernardine’s on Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m. 

Lillian is especially pleased that “unhoused heroes” from her program have found permanent homes here in Forest Park.

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.