The Philadelphia Veterans House, located on Baltimore Avenue, has been a place of refuge for those who served in the military since it opened in 1994. The temporary housing gives those who fought for the country a place to stay while they get back on their feet.
“A few years ago we noticed a great need for homeless veterans and some services for them around here,” executive director Cynthia Wilson said. “There seemed to be a lot of them that really didn’t have a place to go.”
Wilson’s driving force to begin working at the home was a personal one. Her father developed post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Vietnam War, and he ended up being homeless. Her goal was to prevent that from happening to others.
“A lot of people would compare it to a shelter, but we’re a lot more than a shelter. What we can offer here is a short-term place for guys to come and stay while they’re waiting for that long-term placement so they don’t have to be back out on the street until a spot opens up,” she said. “They can come here, and they have their meals, they have a safe place to stay, warmth, comradery with the other veterans, and we try to get them hooked up with other resources to get their benefits filed, maybe get back to school and some other things to advocate for themselves.”
Several of the staff members who work at the facility have also served in the military, and some have even previously lived there themselves. They are given ranks to determine what their duties at the house are. The home is also staffed by chaplain Catherine Jensen, mental health director Brigid Gallagher, assistant director Marcus Davis and chef John Bostick. Interns volunteer their time as well.
Robert Iannucci has lived at the house as a staffer since he began working there two months ago. After serving in the military himself, he said giving back is the best part about his job.
“People come off the street and they have no respect, no money, no clothes, no future really,” he said. “I think that’s the best part about my job – supplying them with a future and options.”
Overnight staff member Ernest Willoughby added another one of the perks is how well everyone in the home gets along and interacts with one another.
Former resident Johnny Jamison said even though the stay at the veterans home is only temporary, the benefits are essential.
“The structure is what we needed, because that’s when you’re coming from a situation where your life is just … abysmal,” Jamison said. “That structure gives you hope … It brings out what you learned in the service, and you just end up pushing harder.”
The Veterans House currently has three residents, although the home is equipped for several more occupants. Each veteran has a story and different reason why they arrived, but they all agree the help of the temporary home is much appreciated.
“I’ve always been the wanderer. I joined the Navy when I was 17, and didn’t really look back from there,” said Tim Szerlik, a current resident. “I had it all at one time. I had the house and the child, the dog and two cars, a motorcycle and everything else. Like I said, things can go bad, and they did.”
Szerlik said he has no idea where his life would have gone had he not ended up staying at the house, and he didn’t even want think about where he could have ended up.
“I lost my job, and drug addictions took me down. I would rather buy drugs than pay bills, that’s what really happened,” explained resident Frank Sicilia, who previously served in the Army. “I was living on the street for about nine or 10 months.”
Sicilia said the staff in the home has been not only nice but helpful as well. The recovering addict said if he didn’t have the Veterans House, he would most likely be back out on the streets, and back on drugs.
The facility hosts an open house on Thanksgiving and is also open Christmas Day for veterans around the city.
“We host a huge open dinner on both holidays, and invite any vet who would like to come out and join us, hang out and spend the day,” Wilson said. “On Christmas we have Christmas presents. It’s a family here, and that’s what we try to promote.”
To learn more about the Philadelphia Veterans House and to help, click here.
– Text, images and video by Shauna Cottle