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‘Serving Those Who Served’

Veterans Multi-Service Center

J.Smith/El Hispano

Philadelphia –  According to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Coalition for the Homeless: “Conservatively, one out of every three homeless men (131,000) who is sleeping in a doorway, alley or box in our cities and our rural communities has put on a uniform and served our country.”

  In a nondescript brick-building at 213-217 N. 4th street , a military operation is being undertaken that is aimed at winning the battle against homelessness, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ills that are besetting returning Veterans.

   Looking at returning veterans from 2009-2011, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently revealed an alarming increase in suicides: a jump of 44 percent among men and an 11 percent rise among women.

  Under Executive Director Timothy Meserve, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force, the Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC) – on a daily basis – serves more than one hundred of Philadelphia’s and Southern New Jersey’s 88,000 Veterans.

   With a staff of ninety -mostly comprised of Vets – the VMC  provides a myriad of services to Veterans, including job training, computer training, benefits counseling, transitional and permanent housing, financial counseling and assistance, and job placement through an in-house Career-Link.  

  Besides running a Thrift Shop in the city’s Frankford section that employs a number of Veterans, the Multi-Service Center also offers a shuttle service to the local VA Medical Center, a laundry, and free breakfasts and lunches.

  Among the latest additions to the VMC, is a Women’s Center, which serves the growing population of women veterans; and a Microsoft Certified Computer Training program.

   “What we try to do is bring in a variety of services so that Veterans can come here and take care of not just one or two, but five, six or eight things that they need done,” said Mr. Meserve. “Because we don’t need Veterans running all over the city.”

  For Juvencio Gonzalez, a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran from the Vietnam era who found himself forced out of a job as Assistant Director of Community Relations at a local University due to what was termed  restructuring, the Veterans Multi-Service Center was pivotal to getting him back to financial solvency.

  “If it wasn’t for the Vets Center, I probably would have been homeless,” says Mr. Gonzalez.

  After having nearly exhausted all of his resources in a legal fight over his removal, Mr. Gonzalez said he was urged by another Vietnam Veteran to look into the VMC.

   “When I left the Marines I never talked about it until I came here.  You’re talking about decades of an experience I didn’t want to talk about,’ added Gonzalez. “I didn’t want to have anything to do with the Vets.”

   “But if it wasn’t for the Vets I met here, I would never have gotten to the point where I am now,” working as a Legislative Aide to a State Senator. “So I believe in Tim Meserve and I believe in this program. It’s more than a personal experience, it’s about a management that really cares for Vets.”

   As part of a nationwide effort to end homelessness, Mr. Meserve along with Director of Development Debby Derricks, and their job placement specialists, the VMC in 2013 was able to place more than 300 Veterans in jobs.

  Although they are again achieving 100 percent of their targeted goals, Mr. Meserve noted that budget cuts have limited their job placement efforts to 120 jobs this year.  

   “What we’re really doing is ending chronic homelessness of Veterans and getting to those Veterans who have been on the street a long time,” said the former Lt. Colonel.

   Working with HUD and other local organizations, Mr. Meserve explained, “we’re basically setting up systems, so if someone is in (imminent) danger of becoming homeless, we have systems to immediately put them in housing.”

  “It’s making sure we have great systems that are integrated, so that when someone falls we’re there to pick them up.”

    Of the “complicated” causes contributing to homelessness among Veterans, Mr. Meserve says “addictions”  and high or low levels of mental illness – often stemming from military service- are principal factors.

  Moreover, the absence of a “support network,” of family and community can make individuals more susceptible to a “traumatic event.”

   Discussing the unique characteristics that Veterans bring to employers, the matter-of-fact Director of the VMC is most effusive: “We take on missions that people think impossible and get it done.”

  “You see a lot of people when they run into a problem they stop,” continued Meserve. “Well, military people don’t stop. We go around, we go over, we go under; and we’re going to find a way to make it successful.”

   Summarizing Meserve’s comments Ms. Derricks interjected, “It’s leadership.”

   Questioned about the differences he finds in veterans from today’s Afghanistan or Iraq wars, and the Veterans of the Vietnam era, Mr. Meserve says there are “more similarities than differences.”

  “While there definitely are differences in generations, different weapons different wars and different places, a Veteran is still a Veteran.  So there is an instant bond.”

  While they’ve had support from the city, particularly Council Oh and at the state level from people like State Sen. Mike Stack, Ms. Derricks noted a decrease in federal funds has forced them to become more “creative.” So on May 4th, there is a golf outing to raise funds; and on May 10th, a 5K Run and Walk called “Bridge to Opportunity” will begin at 4th & Florist, to help Local Vets.

   The VMC also accepts donations of furnishings: tables, chairs, dressers, etc.

 For info: http://www.vmcenter.org