Government

Veterans Resource Fair offers help for the homeless in Linn County

Local organizations aim to serve those who served their country

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

Gary Jaster (left), a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, speaks Monday  with Brandon Burgus, a vocational rehabilitation specialist with the Veterans Affairs clinic in Coralville, during a resource fair for veterans and homeless individuals. The event at the Cedar Rapids Public Library was put on by Coe College and the Willis Dady shelter for the annual MLK Day of Service, which was rescheduled because of last week’s fog.
Cliff Jette/The Gazette Gary Jaster (left), a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, speaks Monday with Brandon Burgus, a vocational rehabilitation specialist with the Veterans Affairs clinic in Coralville, during a resource fair for veterans and homeless individuals. The event at the Cedar Rapids Public Library was put on by Coe College and the Willis Dady shelter for the annual MLK Day of Service, which was rescheduled because of last week’s fog.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Cedar Rapids native Antiono Watkins was a Marine at Camp Pendleton in 1976, a tank track fell on him.

Watkins, who had just started his career in the military, tried to catch the wheel before it landed on him. He suffered a double hernia and other injuries, ending his military career with a honorable discharge and a slew of surgeries.

Watkins said he still can’t lift more than 25 pounds andthat undiagnosed bipolar schizophrenia has hindered his ability to work.

He was homeless for almost a decade when he returned to Cedar Rapids.

But on Monday, Watkins and other veterans, plus homeless Cedar Rapids residents, were invited to a resource fair at the Cedar Rapids Public Library organized by Coe College and Willis Dady, one of the homeless shelters.

The event was part of Coe’s MLK Day of Service projects.

The daylong fair was designed to connect individuals to service organizations, including Linn County Veterans Affairs, Veterans Crisis Alliance, Brain Injury Alliance of Iowa and mental health and counseling agencies.

Sessions during the day, led by Willis Dady and Coe employees, also taught attendees how to cope with stress and post traumatic stress syndrome; how to manage a budget and open a bank account; how to build a resume and interview for a job.

“Anybody can be homeless,” said Holli Erkson, volunteer coordinator at Willis Dady. “It doesn’t just take one person who has drug problems. If you don’t have a car, how are you supposed to get to work? If you have no job, how are you supposed to pay rent?

“At Willis Dady, we try to figure out whatever problem got them into the cycle. Knowing that veterans can be homeless, we were like ‘we should have a day that’s for them.’ They served us, so we should serve them.”

Ray Ropa, veterans advocate at Willis Dady, said the organization serves anywere from 15 to 40 veterans facing homelessness each month.

“If you can’t work, what are you supposed to do?” he said. “Pretty soon everything starts spiraling. ... Homelessness is not something they do by choice.”

Ropa said he first gets homeless individuals in stable housing, then connects them to workforce development resources, food pantries, substance abuse treatment and other organizations.

“If we can provide them housing and provide some stability, we can work further,” Ropa said. “Can you imagine trying to prepare for a job interview and not having a bathroom or have a shower to clean up in or clean clothes?”

For each session attendees visited Monday, they received a gift bag filled with toiletries and kitchen utensils such as a spatula or a can opener.

“We tried to make each session have a lasting effect,” Erkson said, “We tried to have something they could bring back with them.”

Watkins, who lives on less than $1,000 a month, said he picked up some tips on managing a budget and techniques for coping with stress and depression.

And he had some advice for others who might be facing homelessness.

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“Do what you’ve got to do to make it better for yourself,” he said. “If you don’t get up and start going after some of the things you think you should, you’re going to stay where you are. In order to succeed, you have to be heard and you have to be seen.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com

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