Daily Egyptian

Transition house planned for homeless veterans at SIU

Military veteran James Summers, a sophomore from Thompsonville studying computer and electrical engineering, poses outside his Jeep Grand Cherokee on Thursday in Carbondale. Summers was homeless and living out of his Jeep for the first month at SIU after finishing his service contract in Sigonella, Italy.

Military veteran James Summers, a sophomore from Thompsonville studying computer and electrical engineering, poses outside his Jeep Grand Cherokee on Thursday in Carbondale. Summers was homeless and living out of his Jeep for the first month at SIU after finishing his service contract in Sigonella, Italy. "I was counting on the GI Bill for my federal benefits," Summers said. "But what I didn’t know was that you only get paid after the fact. So that was the first hit where I was like, 'What am I going to do?' … So I lived in the Jeep, showered at the Rec Center and ate a lot of fast food. … There were a couple of days there where it snowed really bad and I’d wake up and couldn’t even feel my feet. Like you’re just frozen." Summers said although the situation was unpleasant, he did not believe it was dire enough to live in a homeless shelter. "In my mind, me living in my Jeep in a Walmart parking lot is me getting by. Me going to a homeless shelter — that’s tantamount to admitting defeat," he said. — April 7, 2016, Carbondale, Ill. (Morgan Timms | @morgan_timms)

By Anna Spoerre, @annaspoerre

Like most students, James Summers had a difficult time waking up in the morning. But it wasn’t because he stayed up all night. It was because for the first two months of the semester, he would wake up in the front seat of his car.

Summers, who served in the Marine Corps, is not the only homeless student veteran. The junior from Thompsonville studying computer and electrical engineering is helping establish a transition home for veterans so they don’t have to experience what he did. 

“This time three months from now, I’m going to be able to walk out on my balcony and fish out of the moat,” he excitedly said of moving into the transition home.

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The large six-bedroom brick house, at Giant City and Pleasant Hill roads, is secluded from the noise of the city. Such noise can affect veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Anthony Pilota, who is part of the Veterans Affairs work-study program at the university’s veteran services office.

Some rooms will be rented out at low prices on a first-come, first-serve basis, and some will be open for homeless veterans, said Pilota, a junior from Homewood studying general management.

He said he hopes camper hook-ups will also be installed so veterans with RVs can move onto the property for a small cost. 

“We found that a lot of veterans were sleeping in their cars until they got their first full GI Bill payment, which usually was about two months after school starts,” Pilota said of the bill that covers education expenses for veterans.

“It came as quite a shock when I didn’t get any money at first,” Summers said. “When my GI money finally came in that I was counting on, instead of $1,800 it was $700 and that’s just not enough money to get all the things I need.”

He said in all the advice he got about transitioning from the military, no one ever told him how long it took to receive government payment.

On any given night, about 48,000 veterans in America are without a home, the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates.

Summers, who enlisted in the military right out of high school, said he served for five years then moved to Carbondale, where he was unable to get a job because he had no permanent address. Without a job, he couldn’t afford housing.

Though he knew of homeless shelters in the area, Summers said he didn’t want to take up a bed someone just evicted or living on the street might need more.

He said he would spend most afternoons finishing schoolwork in the library before returning to his 1995 white Jeep Grand Cherokee. He showered at the Recreation Center and his meals consisted of dollar menu items at fast food restaurants. He said he would spend his nights browsing Facebook on his phone or walking around Walmart, where he usually parked his car. 

“There were a few mornings where you wake up very, very cold and it takes a minute to get moving,” he said.

In the mornings, he’d park as close to campus as he could, then longboard to classes because he couldn’t afford a parking sticker.

“[Homelessness] was uncomfortable, it was unpleasant, but it wasn’t really keeping me from getting things done,” Summers said. “The hard part was just flat out not having enough money and having to choose between having food and getting things like books.”

In late February, Summers said a teacher persuaded him to go to University Housing where they waived his security deposit and application fee and set him up to live at Evergreen Terrace. Summers said he had no idea the university would do that. 

MORE: Support group helps veterans get acclimated to campus

Though he said the university was helpful in getting him an apartment, Summers said he is excited to move into a home where he will be one of the six residents who help run and maintain the house.

The 38.8 acres of land also comes with a fishing pond, barn and four-car garage.

Right now, the veterans are figuring out how to cover the $20,000 down payment on the house they plan to move into in May. A gofundme account was set up in late February to raise money, and Pilota is hoping the house gets alumni support.

Summers said at first he was hard on himself for being homeless and was surprised to find out his situation is common. He said many veterans are reluctant to ask for help and have similar independent attitudes. 

“It’s hard to understand how much money you need saved up because it’s going to take a long time to actually get … all the paperwork filed and everything moving like it should,” he said.

Summers said he wants the home to become a place for veterans to hang out after class or on weekends, where they can build a larger community and make more veterans aware of available resources.

Veterans often miss this sense of community after leaving the military, said Garett Gill, a junior from Huntington Beach, Calif., studying accounting. 

“I didn’t think I’d ever find [community] again,” said Gill, who will be one of the home’s permanent residents. “I’m so very happy and blessed that I was able to.”

Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or 618-536-3325.

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