Veterans’ Affairs: Helping Veterans Advocate For Themselves

Executive Director Cynthia Wilson (left) stands outside the Philadelphia Veterans House with Assistant Director Marcus Davis (right)

Philadelphia Veterans House, located at the western edge of University City, is equipped with a porch deck large enough to fit four vets. The front yard is complete with a twenty-foot tall flagpole flying the American flag and the service flags. PVH  provides an array of services for homeless and disadvantaged vets in the city.

Cynthia Wilson (above, left)  a self-described “army brat,” serves as the executive director of the facility that promotes a regimented lifestyle to help vets get back on track. We sat down with Wilson to discuss the work she does and how it benefits area military veterans.

Your website states that “nothing is given and everything is earned” at the house. How does that scenario play out amongst the residents?

Wilson: We try to follow a lot of the same structure that the military guys have to begin with. They come in and they have duties. The have jobs and tasks that they need to accomplish daily. We’re short-term, temporary housing so it’s a place for them to be so they don’t fall through the cracks while they are waiting for long-term housing.

What positive results of that approach have you seen?

Wilson: Just getting them back into a structured environment and giving them accountability for something to help get them back on the right path and back into advocating for themselves.

What do you mean when you say “advocating for themselves?”

Wilson: A lot of the vets, when they come in, they have been in and out of programs. They have ideas like they need to get their benefits but they don’t know where to go or how to do it. We try to give them resources but advocating for themselves is basically encouraging them to get out there do it for themselves. Be your own best advocate. If you don’t stand up for yourself and ask for the things you need, it’s probably not going to go the way you want it to go.

Army Veterans (from left to right) Russell Marshall, Robert Thompson and James Parker put the porch to full use on a warm afternoon.

The assistant director of the facility, Marcus Smith, knows about advocating for himself first hand. He wandered through the narrow brown door on Baltimore Street looking for a place to live just a few years ago.

What initially happened that put you into a position where you wanted to seek assistance?

Smith: I got out of the military in 2010, went back to school and I was having a hard time finding work.I moved around six times within a year and burnt through my savings by having to throw in first and last month’s rent every time I moved into a place. My car broke down, I lost my job and I lost my place to stay.

How did you end up at Philadelphia Veterans House?

Smith: I only intended to stay for a couple weeks. That turned into a month. Then a few more months. They kept me around because I got back in school and was working hard here. I worked my way into a leadership position and when Cynthia started here, she kept me around as assistant director.

Philadelphia Veterans House makes it their goal to assist veterans who have fallen on hard times. How do you make them aware that there is a place they can go for help?

Wilson: A lot of times vets will come in and tell you that there are resources out there but they didn’t know about them to begin with. They hear about them through the vet network. The best thing we can do is get the word out to these vets and show them that there are good resources available. Then they tell other vets that they come across to go to this program or that program because they will provide the things they need. The vets are the ones who really get that out there.

– Text and images by Bob Diekmann and Zachary Rendin.

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