Homeless vets find help in Erie, PA

John Kowalczyk, left, chats with Scott Yeaney, center, and outreach volunteer Jarrid Barringer, a VMCE volunteer who first met Scott in the shelters and told him about the VMCE. Photo by Brian R. Sheridan

When Scott S. Yeaney Sr., 54, a U.S. Army veteran, heard about a place in Erie where homeless veterans could get new clothing, toiletries, tools and home goods, at no cost, he simply did not believe it. He had been living in homeless shelters and on the streets of Erie for the past three and a half months without much hope of returning to the life he once led.

“I’ve been promised stuff for the past three years, and nothing had helped. I thought they were spreading the truth out,” Yeaney says in a gravelly voice that reflects his hard times.

Yeaney once had a successful small business, two vehicles, a house he had paid off, and a wife and child. When his wife sustained a serious back injury at work, he let fear and depression overtake him after nursing her through eight major surgeries.

“When the doctor told me during the last surgery that she might not make it — I just gave up. I stopped answering the door, answering the phone, gradually I lost my house to a fire because I hadn’t paid the fire insurance,” he says.

His wife moved in with their son, and Yeaney joined the growing ranks of homeless vets.

In 2010, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that on any given night there were 76,000 homeless veterans sleeping on American streets. That number has grown as more vets return from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with disabilities, substance abuse problems and mental illness. During one year, 500,000 vets could become homeless. The VA is simply overwhelmed by the size of the problem.

For John Kowalczyk, a retired local businessman, that number was appalling. He decided he could at least make a difference for the homeless veterans in his region. Kowalczyk put his business skills back to work and founded the Veterans Miracle Center Erie at 1573 W. 39th St. Yeaney was one of the first vets helped by the VMCE, which officially opens in June.

The VMCE offers a PX, which is military slang for an on-base retail store that sells provisions and equipment. Only this PX is free to all veterans who can establish a need.

“We want to know what they need — not what they want,” Kowalczyk explains. “We have a checklist and work with them on it for about an hour. Then, they go back to the PX with their list. When they see something they would like to have, but it’s not on their checklist, we write it down on their wish list. Every 30 days, they can come back and replace all of their hygiene products.”

Kowalczyk borrowed the PX idea from his friend, Rabbi Barry Feinman, a director of a faith-based international aid group who founded the first VMC in Albany, N.Y., in November. He convinced many major retailers to donate brand-new merchandise the retail stores could not sell, so in turn, the items would later be given to veterans. Kowalczyk figured he could do the same in Erie after hearing the stories of hardship from vets. Feinman agreed to help get the Erie-based VMC started, by providing items for only a small donation.

“I received $50-$60,000 worth of supplies for only $2,500,” Kowalczyk says. “And I can get 2 tons of clothing every two weeks, if needed.”

Next, he approached the Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center with the idea. The center’s homeless program supervisor, Michael R. Wehrer, welcomed another partner in repairing the lives of these damaged veterans.

“A steady supply of clothing and everyday personal/household items — everyday things you and I take for granted — can make a world of difference in the lives of struggling veterans,” Wehrer says. “That, paired with knowing that there is a community of support there to help them along their way, can provide a significant source of comfort and confidence for our veterans.”

Others joined Kowalczyk, and they formed a board of directors and received a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from Pennsylvania. The last piece of the puzzle came together when Kowalczyk found an empty building at 1573 W. 39th St. that could provide the perfect place for warehousing donations and also gave vets a place to shop.

Volunteers from Erie’s trade unions, contracting businesses, and civic and military organizations donated time and materials to repair the 1,500-square-foot building, which needed plenty of work from the electrical system down to the plumbing. The local response touched Kowalczyk’s heart.

“I can’t do this by myself. I put the money up as much as I could and arranged the contacts. Now it is a community effort. If we can work as a community, we can help these men and women,” he says. Kowalczyk is looking for donations for paying the building’s lease and utilities.

In addition to the PX, the center is providing “welcome kits” to once-homeless vets who have been placed in new apartments by Erie Veterans Affairs Medical Center. These kits include toiletries, a pillow, bedding, cleaning supplies, pots and pans, and dishes.

More than just the physical items, the VMCE gave Yeaney hope and the ability to trust people again. He is back with his wife of 35 years, and they are moving into their own place. Yeaney also tells other vets he meets about the program.

“(When I was at the warming shelters) they gave me a food and a cot but not the essentials. This place helped me get ahead, and now my wife and I found a place, they are still helping us. I couldn’t get this help before,” he says.

The biggest irony of all in this story — Kowalczyk himself isn’t a veteran, having drawn a low number during the Vietnam War draft. He just saw a tragedy unfolding with many men and woman he felt should be honored for their service and sacrifice to our country. LEL

Originally published at www.goerie.com on May 31, 2015.