This nonprofit group in McHenry County provides housing assistance, peer support and employment assistance to veterans in need. The nonprofit is always looking to help more veterans and gather more volunteers.
Thoughts of military veterans conjure images of proud older men walking in parades and saluting American flags. But there’s much more to this group than meets the eye. Today’s military veterans are men and women, older and younger – and a good number of them need help.
The nonprofit TLS Veterans, based at 5330 W. Elm St., McHenry, provides all veterans in need with services to help them achieve success. The agency focuses on helping a veteran and his or her family, and there are many veterans in our area who have emergency needs.
“You really can’t fathom the things that happen to people,” says Laura Franz, executive director of TLS Veterans. “The way veterans often become homeless is that their car breaks down and they don’t have the $700 to $1,000 it takes to fix their car. So, then they lose their job because they can’t get to work. And two months later, they lose their housing. That’s how it happens. It starts with one little thing, but it turns into this huge mess.”
Franz has spent most of her time with TLS Veterans working on outreach. Many people don’t realize TLS Veterans is right in their backyard, available to provide assistance. The agency reaches McHenry, Lake, Winnebago, Boone, and Cook counties in Illinois, and Kenosha, Wis.
“We have the Northern Illinois Food Truck come to McHenry once a month – there are about 100 veterans and their families who come – and one time a lady said to me that she had to choose between buying food or buying medication for her husband. If she had known that we were here, she would have been able to get food from us and she wouldn’t have had to make that choice,” Franz says. “It’s important to get the word out that we’re here.”
The agency started 21 years ago when Vietnam combat veteran Alan Belcher wanted to help struggling veterans find employment, reconnect with their communities and rejoin their families. In 2001, he expanded these services when he found a former motel in Hebron that he thought would be a perfect shelter for homeless veterans.
The motel is now a transitional living program called New Horizons, where both male and female homeless veterans can live while getting their lives back on track. There’s transportation to work and appointments, budget counseling, substance abuse intervention, independent living skills development, coordination with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for benefits, and connection to community support groups to accomplish a full transition back to the community.
Up to 20 veterans can live at New Horizons, and usually members stay for about a year.
“Everybody at New Horizons works,” Franz says. “The only one who doesn’t is a 95-year-old WWII vet, who fortunately can live off disability. It’s a very independent place. One-third of what they bring in, to a maximum of about $300, goes to rent. Then, when they leave us for their own housing, we can recommend landlords to accept them because they paid us on time.”
Outside of New Horizons, TLS Veterans has a program that helps homeless or about-to-be-homeless veterans get into housing. The program uses funding to cover the security deposit and first month’s rent for a veteran and his or her family. The program also provides a new bed for each family member, which often can be a big deal for veterans with physical injuries.
Franz has noticed that many veterans, especially younger ones, are unlikely to reach out for help when they need it. Problems often become much more complicated than they need to be before veterans come to the agency. Mike Richberg, the Board of Directors’ Secretary, who is himself a veteran, echoes these observations.
“The thing is, you have so much responsibility in the military,” he says. “You’re responsible for millions of dollars of equipment, not to mention people’s lives, and you come home and all that responsibility is taken away. It’s hard. It’s often a lifelong adjustment. But you have to break through the barrier of thinking ‘Oh, I can figure everything out myself.’”
That’s why TLS Veterans offers a peer support team at the McHenry office, where veterans can schedule phone calls or meetings with other veterans to talk about claims, benefits, mental health or recovery concerns, housing resources, or anything else on their minds. The site also maintains a food pantry for veterans and families in need, as well as essential household items.
“It’s that concept of shared misery that makes you more comfortable in opening up,” Richberg says. “I’ve gone through it myself. I was in the military for 11 years, and I quickly found this is a great organization for veterans to help other veterans. I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
In addition to the New Horizons program, housing assistance and peer support, TLS Veterans also offers employment assistance. Services include job search skills, mock interviews and resume-building skills. The program also helps to address barriers to employment such as homelessness, mental health/substance abuse concerns, and lack of transportation and proper work attire.
Once a veteran is back on his or her feet, the agency provides aftercare to ensure continued success. TLS Veterans will check in regularly via phone calls, or even meet face-to-face. If ever a veteran strays off track, TLS Veterans is there.
“We don’t just forget about you,” Franz says.
In the future, it’s Franz’s goal to serve more veterans, to have TLS Veterans be a regionally recognized name, and to subsist on more than just grant money by increasing charitable giving to the agency. She also wants to provide more services to children in local schools who have military parents.
“Their lives aren’t like other children’s,” Franz says. “I want to have support groups during the day for children in schools who are military kids, so they can talk about the aspects of this life that only other military children or veterans’ children could relate to.”
To donate to TLS Veterans, learn more about the agency or to receive assistance, visit tlsveterans.org, visit their Facebook page, or call (815) 679-6667. Or, simply drop in to 5330 W. Elm St., McHenry.
“We give veterans our unconditional positive regard and respect,” Franz says. “When people come here, they’re warmly welcomed.”