Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hey Bill OReilly read this it brings reality to the homeless vet

Vets: Back from the war but not home
Vetwork helps homeless veterans access services
Twenty years ago, Paul Kozak took a leave from his job to start a program to help fellow Vietnam veterans in Ocean County.

GLORIA STRAVELLI Above, Paul Kozak uses the Vetwork van to respond to calls about homeless veterans in need of assistance. At right, plants, books, DVDs and photos of family and his canine companions decorate the apartment of a formerly homeless veteran.

Kozak took a one-year leave of absence and never went back. Years later, that program has expanded and become Vetwork, a nonprofit organization that helps American veterans who find themselves homeless in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there may be as many as 6,500 homeless veterans in the state of New Jersey.

"I saw that there was a bigger need," said Kozak of his continued involvement with the program, which is well established in Ocean County but was lacking a Monmouth County base.

To reach veterans in Monmouth County, Vetwork needed an additional mobile van. That is how theMonmouth CountyAssociation of Realtors (MCAR) became involved.

"There was a need for a mobile office for vets in Monmouth County. When we heard about it, we felt it was something we would want to be a part of," said Jane Canlim, a Realtor with the Tinton Falls-based MCAR. "It was an eight-to-10 week project that the public relations committee ofMCAR took on."

The initiative began with a $20,000 grant fromtheOceanFirst Foundation that could be used toward the van ifMCAR raised the additional funds for the vehicle.

"It was really a win-win for both of us," Canlimsaid. "Alittle over $13,000was raised."

Thanks to the donations, Vetwork announced in January that it would be expanding services to provide homeless Monmouth County veteranswith emergency services from a rapid-responsemobile unit. To be eligible for services, the veteran must be a single male or female, honorably discharged, and willing to enter a VA transitional housing program, work-study programor detox/rehab facility.

Vetwork is a programsponsored by the notfor profit Vetgroup Inc., based in Forked River inOceanCounty. The programresponds to and helps veterans dealingwith homelessness, providing support services that include counseling, transportation to Veterans Administration health-care facilities, emergency shelter, food, clothing andmore.

Vetworkprovides services to allhonorablydischargedOcean County veterans, but with the help ofMCAR's fundraiser, will be able to expand services inMonmouth County.

"Our needs are growing," Kozak said. "We don't want to turn anyone away. The number of veterans who are in need continues to climb, especially as troops return home fromthe war. Currently, we are well equipped to provide essential services in Ocean County, but we have a real need in Monmouth County."

The priority for Vetwork, Kozak explained, is to provide immediate assistance to homeless veterans in the area. Whether that need is food, shelter or rehab, counselors are ready to assess the situation and provide veterans with the help that they need.

"There's really no way to know how many homeless vets there are,"Kozak said. "I address themas they come through my door.We had four guys in the last two weeks that are already in programs."

Joe, a 78-year-old veteran ofWorldWar II, is one example of a Vetwork success story.Although he had served his country and worked continuously over the years, Joe, who does not want his last name used, found himself living in motels, vans and the woods in and around Monmouth County for more than 30 years.

Sitting in his cozy, brightly decorated apartment in Brick recently, Joe rememberedmore than two decades of hardship during which his only home was a yellow van and his only companions, his two dogs.

"If itwasn't forVetwork," Joe said, "I probablywould have been dead."

Kozak recallsmeeting Joe back in 2005, at a timewhen he needed a place to recuperate fromsurgery.

"Iwas living in that van for 20 years," Joe said. "And Iwas working."

Joe,who has lived inNewJersey all his life, lost both of his parents at a young age, leaving him with little security. At the age of 19, he joined theU.S.Navy, inspired by patriotism, but in retrospect calls war a "necessary evil."

Upon returning from the service, Joe took up the family trade of tile work, a trade he continued to work at while homeless, but one which he said did not provide a secure source of income.

"[Tilework] was a good trade at one time," Joe said, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. "Some people do very well at it… but Iwasn't one of them. For awhile youwere busy and then there's no work, and before you know it, you can't keep up with the rents."

Joe cited rising rents, the lack of affordable housing, as themain reason for becoming homeless, despite the fact that he continued to work at his trade.

A lover of animals and nature, Joe has filled his apartment with colorful plants, photographs of his parents, and images of animals, including his beloved dogs.

His books, which Kozak recalls Joe would haul around with him during his "yellow van days," are now neatly stacked on shelves along the wall.

"It goes to showyou that a homeless person can live decent too," Joe remarked with pride.

Yet it took a lot of bad breaks and just a few good ones for Joe to get to where he is now, living comfortably in public housing.

"That kind of stuff didn't hold me back. Just likewith the homelessness, it happened. There it is - what are you gonna do about it?" he said.

However, when his van broke down and his dogs died, Joe described the nightmare of his years spent wandering and alone.

"I love nature, but I don'twant to live in it," Joe said. "Not under those conditions. I like a nice house, a nice apartment. The scariest thing in my life was when I first realized my truck was gone - that was my security - and thought, 'What amI going to do now?' "

Joe described the horror that he lived through during the two or three years that he spent living in thewoods following the loss of his van.

He described the fear of being alone and in the darkwithout a sense of direction or a point of reference.

"Here I amin the woods, in the dark. It was pitch black. I was lucky when it was warmweather, but I was in the freezing weather too. Sometimes I would walk into huge puddles or get tangled up in weeds. From the distance I could hear people talking and sometimes a gunshot would go off. Someone must have been hunting, and I wondered, am I going to get picked off out here? Iwas alone, Iwas all over, and I hated it. I hated everyminute of it."

Help finally came for Joe when someone made a call to Vetwork in 2005. He had been in an insurance office paying an insurance bill to keep his van on the road when a woman there found out about his situation. She reached out to social service agencies unsuccessfully, andwould later callVetwork on Joe's behalf.

By then it was a matter of life or death for Joe, who had been getting sick.

"I didn't knowmy way around as far as bureaucracy," Joe said. "I always just went out and went to work. But the van broke down and I didn't have the money to fix it and you couldn't go towork if you couldn't get there. Then I foundVetwork and they helpedme, gotme a pension, did a lot forme."

The people atVetwork also showed Joe something that he had never really found at social services or from the surrounding community: compassion.

"I was negative at first," Joe recalled. "I thought, 'They won't be able to help me.' But when I finally got to Vetwork, they offer you coffee…Imean, generosity, you know, instead of 'Oh, you creep, what are you doing here?' "

"Joewas pretty overwhelmed, too,"Kozak remarked. "He was under a lot of pressure at the time.He was being chased off the street.He needed an operation and he didn't knowhow to approach social services."

Vetwork was able to help Joe access services, getting him food and shelter, and treatment for his medical condition, as well as a pension and, finally, a home.

"For veterans 62 or over and below a certain income, we can get thema pension,"Kozak said. "In Joe's case,we signed himup for a pension, but this takes time."

In the interim, Vetwork provided Joe with food and housing until he was established with an income and an apartment.

When he was working, Joe had been unable to get help finding housing, butVetwork helped himto secure an income that, along with Social Security benefits, and his pension, is livable.

The first time he closed the door to his own apartment, Joe said he thought, "Hallelujah! I couldn't believe it."

It's been three years now that Joe has been living in his own apartment. Vetwork followed up for a while, but now, said Joe, "I've got the pension and I canmanage."

Joe's experiences have provided him with meaningful insight.

"All of these homeless people today, you can bet your bottom dollar that these people hate it like I did.Many of these people were forced out of their homes," Joe said.

Joe doesn't complain about his struggles and is proud that he managed to get through those tough years, but he is bitter about one thing: a society that accepts homelessness.

Hismessage is that homelessness should not exist at all.

"Don't accept homelessness.Don't accept it.Nobody should accept it.They should be out there raising hell about it. If they don't want to work, well, that's their business. But there are people that want to work and that are willing to work and I don't see why they should be without a home," he said.

"What does itmean when that other person is freezing to death out there? There has to be some heart, some compassion. If you don't have that, you're not going to have any feelings for anybody."

Joe also is indignant about the treatment ofwar veterans who end up on the streets,when they should be respected for their service.

"The veterans are coming back with no arms and no legs, and theywere healthywhen theywent into the service. They are over there laying down their lives and they should be treated different…they should be a priority!"

Vetwork'smission statement is exactly that. "We support those who served."

Paul Kozak and his associates continue to work to help veterans in the area and, in turn,Kozak said they appreciate the support of the community to help keep the programgoing.

More information on Vetwork can be found on the Web site,, or by calling (609) 971-7613.

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