In the United States, veterans make up roughly 13 percent of the population experiencing homelessness.1 There are many complex factors that contribute to homelessness amongst veterans, such as an extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income, and access to healthcare. A large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress. According to a study, approximately 70 percent of veterans experiencing homelessness also have a substance use disorder.2
Located on the northeast side of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Shepherd’s House is a long-term residential/transitional housing center that helps displaced veterans break free from their drug and alcohol addictions.
Shepherd’s House has a program that provides education and recovery therapy for those struggling from alcoholism and chemical dependency. All of the participants make a commitment to the recovery program prior to joining. Individuals regularly attend recovery meetings and they also have access to spiritual counselors and staff who assist and support them in the healing process.
In an effort to help out the community, students and staff at Ross Medical in Fort Wayne held a donation drive for Shepherd’s House. The campus successfully collected many items throughout the month and then the donations were dropped off at the end of the month. Some of the items collected include paper towels, lotion, hand sanitizer, shower loofahs, fast-food gift cards, window cleaner, disinfectant spray, and laundry soap.
The Director of Veteran Outreach at Shepherd’s House, Tracey Barr, has played a huge role in leading and building up the organization to be what it is today. Several years ago, Tracey and her husband sold their house and moved into Shepherd’s House to pursue working for the organization and helping out the veteran population full time.
We sat down with Tracey to hear more about Shepherd’s House and how it got started.
Here is what she had to say:
Tell me a little bit about Shepherd’s House.
So Shepherd’s House was founded in 1998 by Barb and Lonnie Cox as a faith-based not-for-profit organization for homeless veterans. Lonnie was a Marine back in the day and he wanted to do this as a way to give back to the community. Originally, the organization actually started out as a place for the homeless, but as it evolved over the years, it actually turned into transitional housing for veterans who are addicted to drugs and alcohol. They decided that was the target population they wanted to serve.
At that time, the courts needed places that have structured, safe, and sober environments to send people. The Allen County court systems helped populate Shepherd’s House in the beginning years. In the last 15 years, we’ve had an ongoing partnership with the Veterans Administration, where we take in veterans and offer them transitional living. We’re called a clinical program because we help with clinical programming. We have professionals here on site for people who are struggling with homelessness, mental health, or substance abuse problems. So we offer that internally and then we also help them get connected in the community more extensively, like providing medical care, therapy, employment, and many other things they may need if they’re not disabled. We also help them with their veteran claims if they need to file a disability claim for their services. Some were injured in combat. So we call that case management. We feed them, we clothe them, and they attend programming related to all those things.All of this is done to help them get back on their feet and gain that confidence in themselves again.
We’re not like a big chain or conglomerate. We’re located just in Fort Wayne; however, we do service veterans from all over the country. They’re allowed to come from all over. We mostly service veterans from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Chicago. So we do have quite a broad range.
How long do individuals stay at Shepherd’s House?
So it depends on how they come to us. Some of them are ordered through the veterans courts, so they’re given a specific time frame, usually like six months, to complete a program and find permanent housing. Otherwise, they can stay longer. We don’t put a time frame on it; we call it clinical necessity, and it’s attached to their program. Most of the men stay six months, but some of them stay up to a year until they can get everything sorted out. So that’s kind of the range.
Do you have any memorable stories since you started working at Shepherd’s House?
Yeah. I think there’s two stories that stick out. Most of the men that come here have families, and unfortunately, because of their addictions, sometimes they lose their families. They burn bridges with their parents, spouse, girlfriend, or children. My husband and I love to see families come back together. There’s some mending and healing that goes on when they come back.
Just recently, I received a letter from a father. In the letter, he thanked me for saving his son’s life and for getting him a new lease on life. So you know it’s nice to see stuff like that. Even when you’re older, it’s still possible to put your life back together. It’s never too late. Even if you’re not a child anymore, your parents still love you and they want to see you well, no matter what age you are. At least most parents do. That was a really sweet story of not giving up on someone. I feel like that’s a really important message as well.
We had another young man whose wife stepped out and ran up all his credit cards and just destroyed his life while he was away serving overseas. So he came back broken and just turned to drugs. We helped him realize that he can rebuild his life and put the puzzle pieces back together. He really turned himself around and realized that he doesn’t have to wallow in that energy. He could put himself back together, and that’s exactly what he did. He recently secured a really good full time job, he got a car, and he has a great set of skills. There’s certainly positive things that happen when you put yourself back together again, so those are both ends of the spectrum. Even if you’re older, it’s still possible to turn your life around.
What are your plans for the future?
So the last two years have been pretty interesting for us. You know, we have faced that storm super well. I feel like we’ve always had really structured medical protocols in place. So with that, we have stayed healthy. We were testing every month and things like that. But, mentally, there is a lot of emphasis in our society about the mental impact. We’ve had to make a lot of accommodations. For example, we purchased iPads for the men to stay connected for their medical appointments. We also created some recreational spaces, like with game systems and PlayStations in a couple of areas. So if they couldn’t go to work, they could play games just to pass time. This was especially useful when we were locked down. So we did create some additional things for them so they could navigate some of the more strenuous times, but they did a really good job of being resilient and just being creative in their own right. Most of them just continued to go to work as normal, so their lives weren’t really affected much, but some were affected. Some did lose jobs, so we just helped them find different ones. We were really flexible and we just overcame a lot together and it worked out well. If they’re able to work, we help them get employment. If they’re not able to work and if they’re disabled, we just find other things for them to do here. Ultimately, the goal is independence, reintegration in society, and helping them find a permanent home down the road once they’re well.
Also, about two years ago, we were approached by the Park Center in the Lutheran Foundation. Across the street from us there is this old YWCA building off of Spyrun that we purchased and it became part of the Shepherd’s health program. It’s called Choices Treatment Center. It was run with similar philosophies, but it was geared for men, and the grant that was written as part of the plan, which was pre-pandemic. The governor actually earmarked money for opiate addiction, and that was primarily the grant. All of the young men over there are court ordered, and almost all of them have opiate addictions. So that became an expansion of the Shepherd’s House which is run with similar rules and laws. It houses up to 40 young men, and most of them are on electronic monitoring and court ordered. So it’s a little different, but it’s kinda run with the same philosophy and a little bit more strict. So that’s the only expansion that took place recently. I don’t think that we would physically expand other than if we could partner with different places to get more housing, because part of the challenge with our guys is that if you have a felony, it’s difficult to rent an apartment or get a house. So you know, there is a great need for that and there are discussions happening. Later down the road, we might partner with somebody that wants to expand that way to help our guys find more permanent housing.
The judges in the court systems and in Allen County refer the men to us. We have six counties in Indiana, and they send their men to us because we’re very unique and some of the smaller counties don’t have as many resources or places where they can send guys to. So what they do is if they graduated from a veterans court program, whatever charges they had, sometimes they’re forgiven, expunged, or reduced to a misdemeanor. It’s definitely a big motivator for veterans to not sit in jail, but to do something about their addictions and their charges in a positive way that helps benefit them and the community, too.
Why is the work that you guys do meaningful to you?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that for me, personally, it’s because I have a background in this kind of stuff. I’ve worked with homeless women, and I was a jail chaplain in my path. So I’ve always felt drawn to help people; for lack of a better word, broken people. But my background was with women for about 25 years on the streets, in the clubs, and [in] jail. Just working to help women find purpose in their life. I did a lot of that type of work. Also, my dad was a veteran for 20 years and my brother was a Navy vet for 10 years. So seeing some of their struggles, I feel like the veteran population was a bit underserved and I feel like if you’ve served our country, you deserve the best. My husband and I’s youngest son was going to college and I suggested that we volunteer together. We honestly learned so much by volunteering here. My husband lost his brother, who was also a veteran, to alcoholism. So that was also kind of like motivation for both of us to see what this place is about. So we volunteered for a year and then they hired us. We live on site; we sold our home. I mean, we went all in. It was kind of like a calling. We did that about 10 years ago. The reward of helping people put their lives back together and watching that progress is just so exciting, or to see them, you know, five years or 10 [years] later, call and say that they’re still doing fantastic, is just amazing. They always thank us for investing in them, as well as caring and listening. Those things just totally motivate you to want to keep going. It’s not always so glamorous, but it’s totally worth it to see what happens. Ultimately, there’s nothing more satisfying than to see somebody broken and put back together – it’s just a beautiful thing.
My husband and I will be married 40 years in December. We just laugh because we’re always like, “We could’ve never done this as newlyweds.” In our older years of life, we’ve raised three children together, and we have grandchildren. So we understand the struggles even though we never went through any of this. But that doesn’t mean we can’t bring things to the plate from our life experiences to help, too. So it’s just all very inspiring and it encourages you to keep going.
I feel like with the small staff that we have here, we all share the same values and mission. All of us were drawn here for different reasons. We didn’t recruit anybody. There’s nobody that works here that was recruited or hired in through an agency. They just felt like they wanted to be part of this. They came in and interviewed and here we are. We don’t have a lot of staff, but I feel like the way we go about things is very organic and open minded. We also have more room to evaluate things and determine how we want to go about improving them.
I was actually just interviewed by a veteran who is also a student at PFW, and he was just like, “You guys are so different from everybody else.” I told him that we try to be different. We don’t want to be like everyone else. To be completely honest, we have seen how the system can fail people and treat them like they’re just numbers. They’re real people and that’s how we try to treat them. These people have real lives and we want them to be put back together again because they’re not just a statistic. So we’re very personal about it, or at least we try to be.
My job is advocacy. I do all of our outreach. I talk to people all over the country. I go places and I just try to tell our story and just motivate people to understand what our veterans’ needs are and kind of just debunk stories of homelessness. I also go to community groups and churches. I mean, you name it, I’ve been to all of them. I just want them to know that these men deserve it. I do believe that our community, as a whole, is very generous to veterans. We’re thrilled to see that all of the needs that we’ve put out there have been met, so that’s very encouraging.
What does debunking homelessness mean to you?
I think that sometimes people think of homelessness as somebody on a park bench or something, but people don’t always realize that it’s more common than they think. You know, whether they are couch surfing from one friend to another, staying with relatives, or camping out in a motel for a period of time, that’s homelessness. I also think that some people don’t realize that with the veteran population, it’s a little unique. Sometimes, people get mad because they’ll see a veteran outside who refuses to get help, but what they don’t realize is that they’ve been trained to be survivalists. So there’s two parts to that. Some of them want to be off the grid because that’s where they’re at. Some of them have mental health problems. So we try to educate people on that. Sometimes if you offer help to a veteran, they may not take you up on it the first time, and it’s important to understand why and not be offended. Even though you may want them to have a safe and warm place to stay, because of their mental health or trauma they’ve had, they don’t trust people, or they’re just not quite ready for that step yet. So I think it just looks different than what you see advertised on TV. I think it’s very different actually. It is hard if you don’t understand and know the facts. You end up making your own narrative on them.
What do you think is important for people to know?
So I think people are honestly just really great. Everyone has been so generous! Something we’ve noticed, though, is that everybody wants to give at Christmas, but there are needs throughout the year as well. Just because the holidays have passed, it doesn’t mean that the needs of our veterans have passed as well. So I just feel like if we can encourage more consistency throughout the year, that would be really beneficial to our vets. We try to provide them with really nice things so they feel good about themselves in their recovery process. We love to give them new stuff when they come to us to get new bedding, sheets, blankets, pillows, toiletries, and even clothing. We try to provide them with a good start. So yeah, I think that’s our biggest thing is just remembering that the needs are there year round.
How can people help?
So there are many ways people can help, and we appreciate it all. Actually, some people don’t know that we do take used cars as well. We take them and give them to veterans to drive. Once we get them, we turn them right over to a veteran. If it’s not running, we turn it in, cash it out, and turn it into bus passes. In terms of furniture, we can’t take used furniture, but when there’s a sale on something, sometimes people will be so kind as to generously buy and donate to us. Sometimes even little old ladies or kids’ groups will bake cookies and we always accept baked goods. The guys enjoy even simple things like that. Some other miscellaneous items that we need include things like mesh laundry bags, liquid laundry soap, window cleaner, disinfectant spray and cleaner, Lysol wipes, paper towels, toilet paper, coffee, creamer, breakfast cereal, Pop-Tarts, and $5 fast food gift cards. It honestly all counts and adds up. We appreciate all of the help so much.
For more information on Shepherd’s House or to find out more about how you can donate, please visit https://www.shepherdshouse.org/.