• 6.8% of the general population are veterans
• 35% of the homeless are veterans
Detroit has thousands of local heroes, but none with a greater positive charge than the head of the Michigan Veterans Foundation.
“We are riding a wave of patriotism like I’ve never seen before,” said executive director and CEO Tyrone Chatman, pausing to speak with ISQ on his way to a new fund/friend-raising opportunity. “It’s the holidays compounded by people wanting to tell the troops that their service has been appreciated and they have not been forgotten.”
Chatman knows from personal experience that this kind of appreciation wasn’t always the case.
After a hard-scrabble childhood on the city’s east side, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Vietnam before facing an uncertain job market back on the home front. As an unemployed auto worker, he tapped trade adjustment funds to study social work at Highland Park Community College. His coursework included an internship at the Neighborhood Services Organization, a walk-in center for substance abusers on Detroit’s skid row. Before long, he was running the place, expanding its services, reaching many more people in need, and putting the organization on the map of city leaders (including the mayor) and national nonprofits like IS member, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which awarded Chatman a $100,000 stipend and recognition as a RWJF Community Health Leader in 1998.
That same year Chatman made the jump to the Detroit Veterans Center (run today by Michigan Veterans Foundation), applying a similar strategy to build the operation and evolve its offerings and strategies. As RWJF reports, “Bringing some key staffers with him from NSO, Chatman helped get the center up and running. He also acquired the lot next door, which by 2001 had become a new Career Initiative Center, to help veterans reintegrate into the workforce. Upon assuming his new job, Chatman immediately began lobbying other human services providers to provide on-site support services such as health care, substance abuse intervention, legal assistance, benefit and entitlement assistance, and vocational training. DVC currently offers paid labor to local businesses, which often results in job training and job placement opportunities. Its new facility offers transitional housing and support services to 104 homeless male and female veterans, as well as on-site support services for veterans who are not homeless. The center also provides space for 12-step treatment programs for alcohol and substance abuse.”
DVC is proud of its back-to-basics, military approach, with barracks-style quarters, squad leaders, opportunities to move up through the ranks etc. which address the special needs of homeless veterans and rebuild the sense of belonging and pride that the veteran had during his service years.
The wave of contributions and heartfelt support Chatman spoke of is helping DVC break ground on a new 42,000 square foot transitional housing facility dubbed “The Pentagon,” both for symbolism and for its shape. DVC has partnered with Habitat for Humanity to rehab a dozen houses for vets on a street now called “Vets Village.” A thrift store and a 47-passenger motor boat bring in revenue. A gym, library, museum, and courtyard are also on the drawing boards. Most importantly, perhaps, the center also provides clinical services to fight post-traumatic stress disorder, chemical dependence, and a variety of other mental and physical health problems.
Chatman speaks eloquently of the struggle veterans face when coping with traumas of past years as well as their wartime experiences. “They try to get a respite from their troubles and they become physiologically and psychologically dependent…. Many Vietnam vets came home believing the government couldn’t be trusted and they had brushes with the law. When they lost employment and couldn’t find work, they ran up arrearages with utility companies and these situations become barriers to obtaining a house in their own name.”
Thinking back to his time there, Chatman also notes that people tend to broad-brush Vietnam era vets. “Most people are not aware of the different experiences Vietnam vets had depending on where they served. In the north of the country, it was arid but in the south, the delta areas were prone to malaria and other disabling diseases. Every homeless veteran has his own reasons and his own story. They must be seen as individuals.”