AUBURN GRESHAM — City and local leaders broke ground on a new housing development that will help homeless veterans "get back on their feet," officials said.
The new 54-room building at 8134 S. Racine Ave. will include on-site case managers, job training and substance abuse counseling.
The facility will help veterans "sleeping in a car or a cardboard box to get back on their feet," said Stan Smith, board president of the New Pisgah Community Organization, the nonprofit spearheading the project. "All services including their housing will be free of charge in hopes that we can restore their dignity and get them back to being self-sufficient."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel reminded a crowd of 200 people at New Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church that Veterans Day is not about remembering veterans but recognizing their service to America.
"These men and women served every day they were called, and for that we owe them a lifetime of gratitude," Emanuel said. "And it is not how much a person has accumulated over time but how much they have given back that makes them worthy to be praised."
Completion for the independent living building is set for December 2014, according to Smith, who said applicants would be screened by local social service agencies servicing veterans, such as the Chicago Veterans Resource Center in Auburn Gresham.
The four-story, 34,000-square-foot building would be made up of studio apartments and would include a computer room, classrooms and a library. Other services would include career counseling, computer training, substance-abuse treatment and referrals to other social services available to veterans.
Among those attending the groundbreaking were veterans like Claude Hilliard, a 63-year-old Chatham resident and former Marine.
"People tend to forget about the sacrifices vets made that allowed them to live a better life. If it were not for veterans the quality of life for most people would not be the same," said Hilliard. "It breaks my heart to see people walk past a homeless veteran sleeping on the sidewalk asking for change without offering any help or encouragement."
Lorenzo Moore is also a former Marine and said more housing for homeless veterans is needed in Auburn Gresham.
"Believe it or not, there are a lot of homeless veterans in Auburn Gresham. I'm glad to see housing is being built specifically for homeless veterans and not just the homeless," said the 64-year-old Englewood resident. "After everything vets did for this country, the least this country could do is make sure that housing is available to all vets regardless of income."
In April, the Chicago Housing Authority broke ground for a new housing complex for low-income veterans in Englewood.
Improving the plight of blacks who have served in the military is priority for Ald. Howard Brookins (21st).
"African-American veterans have made great contributions to this country and people need to know this," Brookins said. "I am here to make sure [African-Americans] are not forgotten about."
Vietnam veteran Samuel Miller, who retired in 1972 as a U.S. Air Force sergeant, said the new housing building is a good start but more needs to be done to help homeless veterans.
"Once a veteran is homeless they have hit rock bottom. But before this happens a system needs to be put in place that provides assistance to keep veterans from falling so low," said Miller, who has lived in Auburn Gresham since 1969 and currently is a member of the city's Commission on Human Relations.
Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp., said the nonprofit organization would partner with Smith to help provide resources, such as job training.
"This project is a good example of a faith-based organization doing right by the neighborhood," Nelson said.
Army Sgt. Terry Smith Jr., who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, lamented about how hard it is to adjust to civilian life after leaving the military.
"I have been in the Army for nine years, and I can tell you it is no cakewalk when you are at war. So it is important that when vets come home for good they are well taken care of because they paid their dues and then some while in the military," said the 40-year-old Auburn Gresham resident.