Life hasn’t been easy for Enester Amerson, a 60-year-old retired engineer from Chicago who is a U.S. veteran from the Vietnam war. Since then, he’s battled depression and life’s obstacles until he found refuge at the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, Illinois.
“From 2012 to 2014, I had three different jobs and I never lasted more than two weeks because of my condition,” Amerson said. “Once they see I’m hurting after a couple hours, I have to tell them the truth, I’m disabled.”
Amerson has a chipped bone in his back that he developed after serving in the military. When he bends a certain way, it hits a nerve and causes him to fall, which is why he was forced to retire.
Amerson soon found himself with no source of income, his money running out, $16,000 worth of debt, and no apartment he could afford. Because of this difficult time, Amerson became depressed. To help deal with his depression, Veterans Affairs sent him to the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans.
“The shelter helped me get stable again. It pulled me through some bad points of my life,” said Amerson.
The shelter provides many services, including housing, counseling, employment and case management for veterans. The main goal of the shelter is to help veterans become independent. The veterans are able to achieve this with the help of the community. Recently, the shelter hosted a ceremony unveiling two honorary street signs in Wheaton after two local heroes, Nicholas Larson, who died in the line of duty in Iraq in 2004 and Robert J. Miller, who died in Afghanistan in 2008. Their efforts to support vets are recognized by the city and the community.
Bob Adams, 69, of Winfield, Illinois, is the co-founder, president, and clinical director, who also provides therapy for veterans of the shelter. Co-founder Dirk Enger was a marine in the Gulf War.
Adams is a veteran who served during the Vietnam War. When he came home after serving, he went back to school and graduated with a social work degree because he knew he wanted to work with veterans and open a shelter.
“We’re able to help people who are in need of help,” Adams said. “Veterans of all ages, either gender, people in all sorts of difficulty, have the resources that they need to move ahead in their lives.”
The main goal of the shelter, Adams said, is to help the veterans, and their families when necessary, regain the skills and ability to once again rely on themselves.
“Whether it’s helping them keep their stable housing, or find housing, as a case manager I work with them with budgeting, find a job,” said Lauren Adams, 28, of Winfield, who is the intake coordinator and a case manager at the shelter. “Then we go over other barriers they’ve had to deal with in the past that led to their homelessness.”
The staff also teaches skills for the workplace and for money management, among others. It’s a learning experience for both the veterans and the employees.
“You just have to be patient,” said Judy Mitsias, daytime house manager at the shelter. “You learn quickly on that they’re not all equal and you have to really sit back and evaluate the situation with each and every one of them.”
The shelter provides affordable housing when the clients are ready to support themselves while maintaining the assistance they need such as therapy. Although Amerson has overcome his depression, he stayed in the affordable housing provided by the shelter.
“This place is so far above the actual real care for the individual person,” said Amerson. “They tailor your program to fit what you’re going through.”
The motto the shelter goes by is to “leave no one behind,” said Bob Adams. This is true even when the shelter has to turn people away who do not meet the criteria. Requirements include showing signs of alcohol or drug addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Also, potential clients must prove that they are homeless or at imminent risk of being homeless.
“That’s probably one of the hardest parts of this job,” said Lauren Adams. “There’s at least always one phone number I can give that may be able to assist them.”
The Wheaton community plays a large role in helping the veterans succeed, including council workers or the mayor if something needs to be done and volunteers who give their time.
“I couldn’t do anything without the volunteers, or else it’s just me,” said John Dixon, 54, of Lombard, who is the volunteer coordinator at the shelter.
Lombard has many volunteers helping at the Freedom Commissary, a free thrift store for the residents. The volunteers help with sorting and packing donation items for the store. Opportunities are available for up to five volunteers to help prepare, serve and dine with the five residents staying at the Larson Home, the transitional housing and supportive services building.
Most funding comes from donations from the community, companies and other organizations such as American Legion.
The most important support for the shelter though, is the church across the street, Trinity Episcopal Church, the first community organization to recognize and support the shelter, according to the clinical director.
“They understand that those who are the true fabric of freedom veterans, deserve to come home and have a place to live and a job and a way to support themselves that honors their service, and they have never stopped trying to do that with us,” said Bob Adams.
Although Amerson became better after his financial difficulties, he said he faced depression after the loss of his mother then after his son was shot.
“There’s always something tragic going on, but each time Midwest Shelter came through,” he said.
Now that he’s doing better, he feels ready to move on.
“This is a safety zone for me, I’m comfortable,” said Amerson, who plans to move out of the affordable housing when his lease ends next September. “But I think it’s time to let another veteran take my spot.”
He has worked hard to reach the point where he is now and has finally picked up the pieces of his life to create stability for himself.
“I feel good,” he said. “I’m proud of myself for a change.”