For struggling veterans in the city, the Philadelphia Veterans Comfort House is a welcome place to find assistance and temporary housing. The twin home on Baltimore Avenue started in 1994 as a place for cancer patients to recuperate during the working week. Eventually, it adapted to tackle the widespread plight of homelessness among veterans.
“Some of them have substance abuse, some of them have PTSD,” said Wallace Presley, Sgt. Major of the house. “The ones that’s just coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, they’ve been deployed about two or three different times. So they have certain issues like PTSD.”
Presley has prostate cancer as a result of his exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.
“Some of them have family issues,” Presley said. “But we don’t usually get into why they’re here. When they’re here, they just have to make sure that they try to get out of here.”
The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, delivered to Congress, found that about 16 percent of the adult homeless population and 13 percent of sheltered homeless were veterans.
Twenty people, including one family, are currently living at the house. Guests have a day room lined with couches and books on the first floor and a multipurpose room with beds, washers, a computer and a TV in the basement. The front deck is the designated smoking area.
Advertisements, photos and other military paraphernalia adorn the walls, while bedroom doors are decorated with the colors of regiments from wars served by the house’s previous guests. A three-legged pit bull named Millie roams the house. She survived being hit by a car, which helps her fit in with the house, Wallace said.
The house adopts a military framework of responsibility and authority, rejecting what executive director David Kamioner calls the “social welfare model of most homeless shelters.”
“It is actually like a platoon,” said Kamioner, a former military intelligence analyst. “We use military goals – excuse me, military framework to achieve civilian goals of finding a job and getting your own place.”
Individuals are referred to by a rank – not by status in the Armed Forces but by their position in the house. All new guests are designated “troopers.”
Everyone shares cooking, cleaning and maintaining the house, as stated in the nine pages of regulations given to them upon their arrival. Three meals are provided a day and no one pays room and board.
Although it varies by situation, Kamioner said each guest’s maximum stint is around six months.
PVCH acts as a bridge for veterans between the office of Veterans Affairs and other assistance organizations. Although not a medical facility, PVCH helps guests stay on top of appointments at the VA Medical Center on Woodland Avenue and directs them to assistance facilities like The Perimeter at 4th and Arch Streets.
VA health care eligibility, VA health care facility locations and VA prescription benefits were the most common services sought by veterans in 2010, the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report found.
Guests are required to work on finding housing, employment or educational opportunities while staying at the house.
“The thing is, when they come in, they have to be proactive,” Presley said.
Twice per week, PVCH holds Operation Air Drop to take food, blankets, toiletries, clothes and other supplies to homeless veterans still on the street. The event is popular with Villanova University volunteers.
The group also uses a $25,000 fund to help struggling veterans and veteran families to catch up with expenses, an effort called Operation Able Assist.
“So they can come to us,” Kamioner said, “and we’ll pay those bills for them to bring them back to square one so they can get caught up on all their bills and then they can stay in their own homes.”
Erika Landry, assistant executive director, started working at PVCH in September.
“We could use a second house,” Landry said. “We love having our volunteers here because the house can never be too clean. The amount of food that we go through, keeping on top of that is probably one of the hardest things.”
Easy access to the hospital and the 40th Street trolley stop benefits veterans but directors have to remain conscious about their Spruce Hill neighbors.
“That’s why we take a lot of pride in the exterior appearance of our house,” Landry said. “We want everything to be in order and shape.”
Guests and volunteers maintain the front and back gardens.
“People kind of say, ‘They have it together. They’re keeping it clean,’” Landry said. “We’re not somebody they need to worry about.”
With 980,529 veterans last year, Pennsylvania had the fourth-largest veteran population in the country, according to the Office of Veterans Affairs.
Sgt. Bill Van Cleef has been volunteering at the Comfort House for six weeks. He needed a place to stay, having lived in Philadelphia for 30 years before moving out west.
“There’s no challenge to living here,” said Van Cleef, who served in the 6th and 37th field artillery during the Korean War.
He does some maintenance around the house and signs guests in.
“You have to help yourself,” he said. “You can’t depend on anybody to do it for you.”
Ernest “Butch” Willoughby has been living at the house since April 4. He served in the Marine Corps from 1976 to 1980, enlisting one year after the Vietnam War ended. While working at a Shoprite in Northeast Philadelphia, Willoughby’s hours were cut when economic recession hit, leaving him unable to continue paying rent at the apartment he had been living in. He heard about PVCH through a VA outreach program.
“This place is a godsend,” he said.