Georgia might be known as the Peach State, but its ranking in terms of the homeless veteran population is not so peachy. Georgia has the third-largest population nationwide of homeless veterans, with more than 750,000 calling our state home. Likewise, Georgia ranks first in the nation for female veterans living here, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Among this population of veterans, more than 40,000 live in poverty and between 3,000 and 13,000 are homeless.
These are facts, that Jim Lindenmayer knows all too well. Jim is a West Point graduate and 13-year Army veteran who still serves his country but in a different way — he has dedicated his life to supporting homeless veterans. In 2014, Jim founded a nonprofit, the Cherokee County Homeless Veterans Program (CCHVP), which has a home base on McClure Street in Canton. After nine years, the program volunteers are very excited about realizing the dream of building a transitional housing center on Bells Ferry Road, establishing the only housing program north of Interstate 20.
Proud of its track record, Jim said CCHVP has come to the aid of more than 700 homeless veterans since 2014, and the number grows daily. “Our goal is to provide the help and respect our veterans deserve,” he said.
Meeting the Most Basic Needs
Jim is excited that the facility will expand the nonprofit’s reach and effectiveness by providing temporary housing, mental health services, veteran claims assistance, food, clothing and other program services. He has always been mindful about how the organization allocates its resources.
“Currently, this is one of our biggest assets,” Jim said about the nonprofit being volunteer-run, “as this is how we guarantee that more than 97% of our funds go to the veterans and the programs we have that support them.”
The volunteers also organize winter coat drives, holiday Adopt-a-Veteran events and auto donations. The newest effort is a cellphone drive, conducted in partnership with Cell Phones for Soldiers. Cellphones have surpassed socks as the biggest need for the homeless.
More than 50 veterans have received donated vehicles. Many disabled and homeless veterans and those with small children can’t afford to own cars, so seeking employment is nearly impossible in Cherokee County, where there is no mass transit system. Veterans who apply can receive a gently used vehicle after being vetted and approved; donors receive a tax credit for their gift.
Vetting is a process that applies to all veterans supported by the program.
“This may seem harsh to others when a person needs help,” Jim said, “but due to our ties to many federal programs, we must verify that the veteran is who he or she says they are and that they have been honorably discharged from the service.”
Honoring the veterans is always top-of-mind for Jim. Instead of simply offering charity, the nonprofit asks recipients to pay it forward. “Every veteran we support, whether they have been in for two years or 20-plus years, has earned our respect, and we are happy to help them,” he said. “The only catch is that sometime in the future, we will ask them to help another veteran.”
Moving Toward Mental Wellness
As the CCHVP grows, Jim seeks new ways to support the veterans. Mental health issues are among the most challenging. Many homeless veterans suffer from depression to the point of suicidal thoughts, and some act on it.
“Today, the big issue is veteran mental health,” Jim said. “Cherokee County is not immune to veteran suicide, as we have had a number over the past couple of years. VA and other studies have shown that 40% of all homeless veterans suffer from some type of mental health issue. We are working with the VA and other groups to create a mental health coalition so that we can get veterans the help they need.”
Many veterans who need mental health support have no idea where to turn or who to talk to, Jim said. The coalition is composed of veterans eager to offer their support. Veterans are proud and do not want to be seen as weak; therefore, they seek out other veterans who have experienced similar military or conflict experience as an initial point of contact. Issues concerning mental health affect the spouses and children, as well as the veteran.
The Ability to Change Lives
Jim has witnessed plenty of suffering — and plenty of transformations. He shared the story of one female former Marine who suffered from homelessness for more than 30 years, unable to receive her claim packages from the VA.
“We pushed every button we could to help her,” Jim said, going on to explain how they packed more than 400 pages of VA treatment records, FedExed them to the intake center in Wisconsin, then reached out to the local media to have them tell her story. After more than six months of care and persistence, their efforts paid off.
The woman’s story was broadcast on the local news and seen by an executive at the VA, who called the next day to say that her claim had been approved.
“The back pay she received allowed her to get back on her feet and back into society, where she is thriving today,” Jim said. “I still stay in touch with her to find out how she is doing because once you are in our program, you are part of our family for life.”