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A place for homeless veterans to lay their heads

June 25, 2018

Zion Keepers help homeless disabled veterans stay off the streets

 

Photo and Story © Robin Rayne/ZUMA

MARIETTA —Veronica Sigalo knew she had to do something to help the homeless population, even if it was for just a few individuals at a time.

   As a nurse at the DeKalb County jail, she watched as inmates were brought to the jail, released — yet returned the very next day.

 “I ask them, ‘Why you come back?’ They say they need a place to stay, especially in winter, so they do stupid stuff so they can come back and have some food and stay warm,” said Sigalo, 58, who emigrated from Nigeria in 1986 and worked as a licensed practical nurse for several years. 

“Where I come from, going to jail is taboo. Nobody wants to go to jail. I talked about it with my friend who also worked at the jail and we decided to do something. As we got more involved with the homeless we decided to start a non-profit to help — but we had no idea how to do it,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘If God wants us to do it He will show us the way.’ God led us to see all the people who are homeless and see how others are helping,” she said. “We do it by ourselves, step by step, to start the non-profit.” 

Sigalo launched Zion Keepers in Marietta in 2005. The faith-based non-profit organization provides housing and other supportive services to homeless disabled male veterans, people living with HIV/AIDS, people struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and other life controlling issues.

Zion Keepers currently provides subsidized housing in a Marietta apartment complex for nine veterans who would otherwise be homeless. Sigalo said she hopes to add temporarily living space in Smyrna that would accommodate another six veterans. 

Though she lives in Stone Mountain and recognized the increasing need throughout the Atlanta metro area, Sigalo said she felt led to open her non-profit office in Marietta. 

“There was a great need in Cobb County for veterans. I always thought I would go into ministry, but this is where I’m called to serve,” she said. 

With funding from federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Zion Keepers was initially able to provide living space for 18 homeless veterans in six apartments on Franklin Road near Interstate 75. Recent budget cuts caused the non-profit to downsize to three apartments and relocate a few miles west.

 Residents are required to pay $400 each for rent. Zion Keepers pays all utility bills.

 “We didn’t start out just serving disabled veterans, but there were many veterans in the program. Now the Veterans Hospital calls if they have someone in need and they ask if we have room for him,” she said. “If we do, he has a home for as long as he needs it.”   

Zion Keepers help homeless disabled veterans stay off the streets

 

 Homeless Population Difficult to Count

Veterans become homeless from a complex set of factors such as severe shortages in affordable housing, poverty, high unemployment and mental and physical disabilities, Sigalo said. A large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with the lingering effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. 

While accurate numbers are difficult to assess, Veterans Administration officials estimate that more the 200,000 veterans are homeless on any given night nationally, with more than 400,000 experiencing homelessness over the course of a year. At least one out of every four individuals who is sleeping in a doorway, alley, or cardboard box in cities and rural communities has put on a uniform to serve in the military, and nearly half of all homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era, VA officials note. 

A 2017 report prepared by a coalition of advocates for the homeless lists 403 individuals in Cobb County as either ‘sheltered,’ ‘unsheltered’ or living in ‘transitional housing.’

Advocates define ‘sheltered’ individuals as those who live in domestic violence and emergency shelters, or motels or apartments paid with vouchers by public or private agencies because the person is homeless.

 ‘Unsheltered’ individuals live in places not designed for human habitation, such as abandoned buildings, park benches, under bridges or in illegal makeshift camps in wooded areas.

‘Transitional housing’ provides living support for homeless individuals or families, with the goal to facilitate independent living within 24 months, unless approved by HUD for a longer period.

Official numbers provided to HUD are often incomplete because of different barriers to obtaining comparable data, advocates for the homeless said.

“If someone is living in a hotel, HUD says they’re not homeless,” notes Kaye Cagle, a spokesperson for MUST Ministries in Marietta. School systems might classify a student as homeless if they live in a hotel, she said, noting different definitions of the term.

“We have 200-300 unique individuals that we turn away from our shelters every month,” due to space limitations, notes Chris Fields, executive vice president at MUST Ministries. “For the first time since we began measuring, the largest percent of the total of those are children at 38 per cent.”

The actual homeless population in the county is generally thought to be at least five times higher than the survey count, MUST officials estimate.

As shelters close and rents escalate in urban areas, more and more individuals find themselves pushed out to suburban towns to survive, advocates said.

Sigalo said homelessness has become less of a priority with government officials, “but is still very much with us as a problem. Funding is so much more competitive now, but we hope to get back to where we were when more funding is available,” she said. 

Zion Keepers help homeless disabled veterans stay off the streetsSagalo now works with a staff of three from a small, sparsely-furnished office in Smyrna. “We sometimes work without pay, like a church. I have good children who are grown who help us keep going,” Sigalo said. 

“I wish more people knew we exist,” Sigalo said. “We can’t do anything without funding. We need more volunteers who could help, and we could use a van to get the veterans to appointments.” The veterans typically use public transportation for visits to the VA Medical Center in Decatur, with trips often taking several hours each way, she said. 

*****

Donald Lewis O’Neal,  Fletcher Thompson and Tony Salomone share one of Zion Keepers’  three apartments in Marietta.

 O’Neal, 70, grew up in Atlanta and served as an Army radio communications specialist in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1968-69. “I was in the jungle, I was the link between the front lines and the command. I was friends with guys who went out on patrol but didn’t make it back. It’s really hard to talk about it,” he said. O’Neal lived with relatives for many years but eventually found himself on the streets. “Life didn’t go so good,” he said. He connected with Zion Keepers earlier this year.

 Thompson, 69, was an engine technician and tester for the Air Force in the 1960s. “I was a sergeant, stationed in the U.K. along with the Royal Air Force. When I got out I worked for K-Mart as a store manager, but I was an alcoholic,” he said. 

Hospitalized for eight months in 2013, Thompson said he nearly died twice. 

“God let me live but I lost all my things. I went to the VA and told them I was homeless and needed a place to stay. I only had a few dollars in my pocket.” Thompson moved into a Zion Keepers apartment in March.

 Zion Keepers help homeless disabled veterans stay off the streetsSalomone, 62, served three years as an Army communications specialist in Texas and works as a maintenance person for a local assisted living facility. “I had a job in Canton and I had my own place to live, and then the company I worked for went out of business. Things fell apart after that,” he said. 

“I lived in a motel on Highway 41 for a few months and then a friend told me about Miss Veronica. I’ve been here four years,” he said.

He is grateful for what Zion Keepers provide but looks forward to a day when he can live in his own apartment again.

“Once you reach a certain age getting a job is really tough. Getting a place is really tough. This country is not made for the old. I see that every day where I work with people who have the money. If you don’t have the money, it’s tough luck.”

Unwelcome in the Neighborhood

 In October, 2017, Cobb County commissioners agreed to lease its Rose Garden facility on Teasley Drive in East Smyrna to Zion Keepers for an initial five-year term.  

   Sigalo plans to open the facility later this year as a day center, with room for a food bank, counseling services and limited transitional housing for six disabled veterans. Veterans could stay could stay for up to a year as they get their life back together, she said. 

The building was deeded to the county by the Cobb County Healthy Futures Foundation in 2010 and housed a learning center for underperforming elementary students until that business ceased operations in 2016.

Zion Keepers help homeless disabled veterans stay off the streetsZion Keepers will be responsible for all facility repairs, maintenance, upkeep and improvements to the property, as well county-approved insurance coverage, Sigalo said.

But residents in the Rose Garden neighborhood are angered about Sigalo’s plan to move into the currently-vacant building. More than fifty neighborhood residents met with county commissioners in February to voice their intense opposition.

“What happens if they decide to go crazy? They could become violent,” warned Emily Norwood, 22, who served as a boatswain’s mate in the U.S. Navy. She and her veteran husband live with their year-old toddler son Caysen next to the currently-vacant property. “I shouldn’t have to be worried at night that someone from the shelter comes into my house. Bringing in strangers, there’s a higher chance of something happening.”

“It’s nothing against veterans, but the odds of them all being okay are very small. They’re probably great guys, but that’s a lot to throw at a neighborhood,” said Scott Bagwell, 58, who also lives nearby. “We don’t want it. We just don’t know what we’re getting into. It would be hard to fit into this community,” he said.

Bagwell fears veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder breakdowns could be triggered by sounds of low-flying aircraft from nearby Dobbins Air Force Base. “The unknown is the problem. They could go off their medications. There’s children playing around here. What are they going to do all day? It’s a safety thing and a big potential threat,” Bagwell said. 

‘Fear is the Enemy’

Those comments make Sigalo sad. 

“They are coming from fear,” Sigalo acknowledged. “They don’t want to hear that these veterans served their county. It is like they do not care. Most of the population we see is age 54 and up. These veterans should be at home with their families, especially the aging ones. My heart is in helping these veterans stay off the street. They fought for us and they help make this country what it is,” Sigalo said. “The least we can do is help them when they are down.”

Commissioner Lisa Cupid listened to the residents’ concerns at the February meeting. “This neighborhood has had its fair share of challenges and feels like it has been overlooked,” she said. Cupid’s district includes the Rose Garden neighborhood.

While she supports Zion Keeper’s mission to serve disabled veterans, she conceded that the Rose Garden community was not provided reasonable notice and participation in the leasing decision. “We are asking this visibly vulnerable area to bear the weight of an unmet social issue pertaining to transitional housing of a vulnerable population. It might not have been made clear to everyone exactly what Zion Keepers’ plan included,” Cupid said. 

Cupid said it was not unreasonable for any residential community with a proposed transitional group home of six or more people to have questions or concerns about the impact a group home will have in their community.

“Serving veterans is an honorable and critically needed service,” Cupid said. “I think Zion Keepers does great work. Once the neighborhood sees who they are and who they serve, I think they will be more supportive.”

Cupid said she wants to be fair to both the Rose Garden community and Zion Keepers, and hopes the building can be used in a way that serves both.

Sigalo said she is waiting for the county to complete roof and gutter repairs before opening its doors over the summer months. She plans to offer services to the community including counseling and a food bank initially but will delay adding living space for veterans for the present.  “We need to gain the community’s trust first,” she said.

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