By Anya Bochman
With the news cycle currently dominated by Democratic primary candidates, it’s impossible not to hear at least several plans and promises for helping the American veteran population. Yet it’s an issue that often doesn’t get enough attention, or at the very least is fraught with public misconceptions. For instance, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 555 veterans experienced homelessness on any given day in 2018 in New Jersey. But Ray Chimileski, of Long Valley, founder and executive director of Operation Chillout (OCO), figures the true number is actually greater.
“Recently, we’ve had more requests for help [from homeless veterans] than ever,” Chimileski said. “It’s certainly not something you’d read about in the papers.”
Chimileski, who has background in domestic counter intelligence, explains this rise in homelessness in several ways. For one, the original generation of Vietnam vets that his organization helped at its inception is aging and requiring ever more care, such as placement in nursing homes. The younger veterans of wars in the Middle East are getting diagnosed with ailments such as PTSD quicker, but not necessarily receiving the proper aid they need following the diagnosis.
As a result, there is a generational shift in younger veterans who are in need and have never experienced homelessness before. And unlike some of the older Vietnam veterans who have unfortunately gotten accustomed to chronic homelessness and developed certain survival skills, these younger men and women are truly out of their depth.
“A vet who has nowhere to go but is currently in a hospital for PTSD or injury is still homeless, but those numbers are often not counted,” Chimileski said.
Chimileski founded OCO on December 21, 2000 with several friends, after encountering a group of homeless Vietnam veterans living in the open under a railroad trestle in northern New Jersey. When asked how they could be of help, Chimileski’s group was told, simply, “It’s cold.” Immediately recognizing the need, the incipient OCO took it upon itself to collect warm clothing and other survival supplies.
From there, the organization grew, becoming a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2011. Its mission is hinged upon recognizing the inherent worth of every homeless person and providing emergency supplies and survival gear to the most vulnerable members of the community without regard to religious affiliation, ethnic heritage or state of life.
The all-volunteer outreach organization is dedicated to ending the crisis of homelessness for veterans throughout New Jersey and parts of North East Pennsylvania by promoting awareness of the multifaceted nature of poverty; advocating for sustainable solutions and programs serving the needs of the poor, addicted, abused and homeless; organizing for peace and economic justice to address systemic inequities challenging impoverished communities; and engaging in direct compassionate action including the collection, dissemination and delivery of supplies to homeless people and the agencies that provide for their temporary care.
One of the tasks before the OCO is seeking out veterans on the streets, many of whom now face acute Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as well as other chronic illnesses, and are a group represented heavily amongst the general homeless population.
Anthony DeStefano, who was a Major in the U.S. Army and had served for 24 years, is OCO’s Homeless Veterans
Outreach Coordinator. His primary task is finding the homeless veterans in need, and providing appropriate help – whether through clothing donation or transport to medical facilities and housing.
Combat PTSD is something DeStefano, of Hackettstown, is intimately familiar with, as he acquired the condition while serving in Iraq and was officially diagnosed with it following his honorable discharge from the military in 2006.
“I met [Chimileski] in 2007 shortly after I was discharged and was suffering from PTSD,” DeStefano said of his original involvement with OCO. “I needed something for catharsis and to turn my life around.”
A crucial aspect of OCO that both DeStefano and Chimileski depend on is the annual Vets Summer Fest, which is the organization’s largest fundraiser. Held this year on Saturday, Aug. 10, the festival provides OCO with funding that enables it to undertake its seasonal outreach campaigns. For instance, in 2018, OCO provided 35,000 bottles of water and 25,000 backpacks to the homeless veteran population.
Such supplies are more crucial than the public may initially understand. As a sobering example, Chimileski recalled an incident ten years ago when a homeless vet died after drinking water from the Hackensack River during the summer, a tragedy that could have been avoided if he had access to clean drinking water.
“We get five new calls a day on our rapid response helpline from homeless veterans in the summer,” Chimileski said. “If all the people we have helped so far stood together holding hands, they would form a line 21 miles long.”
Another initiative that OCO has recently taken up is tiny homes for homeless vets. Many veterans face challenges returning from military service – finding a decent job, making a living wage, reintegrating back to civilian life, navigating the maze of support service providers, as well as physical and emotional stress. Many veterans cannot sustain incomes needed for their own homes or apartments, lapsing into homelessness. OCO’s Tiny Home program offers an affordable, healthy and respectful alternative to shelters, halfway houses and unsafe community living arrangements.
In lieu of full state support for veteran housing, these energy-efficient domiciles are a true step towards independent living. The recent recipient of such a home is a young vet who Chimileski described as having overcome addiction and gotten “his head on straight.”
“This is the population we serve, and we wish them a lot of luck,” Chimileski said, while pointing out that contrary to public perception, most vets who struggle with substance abuse do so as a result of accidental addiction to opiate pain killers following legitimate treatment.
“It’s a myth that [homeless veterans] take drugs,” Chimileski said. “Most end up where they are due to economic and psychological reasons.”
The essence of OCO is rapid response – it has a helpline equipped to handle emergency requests for help. Though Chimileski explained that the organization’s focus is on immediate problems which differentiates it from groups that offer case management over time, it’s impossible for those involved – an all-volunteer staff – not to notice certain trends. For this reason, OCO has molded itself to certain ideals.
“Our philosophy is early intervention,” Chimileski stated. “Today we still see Vietnam vets who have been on the streets for decades and at this point, will never not be homeless. So we try to intervene early with the younger generation of veterans.”
The Vets Summer Fest makes much of this intervention and support possible.
“[Chimileski] calls it a picnic, but it’s a really great festival,” DeStefano said. “There are live bands, tents and food vendors.”
Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 10 at Vasa Park in Budd Lake, the festival is open to the public, with all proceeds benefiting the veterans helped by OCO. There is no admission fee, a situation that the organizers feel comfortable with given enduring public generosity.
“We used to have a sliding scale idea, but we got rid of that once we realized that attendees are even more generous than we anticipated,” Chimileski commented. “People just donate towards the cause, and it helps us for months and months with funding for hotels, phonelines and outreach events.”
The festival opens at 11 a.m., with what DeStefano described as a “major tribute” to veterans commencing at noon. Attendees can expect a guest speaker, pipes and drums performing patriotic music, and the Honor Guard from the Morris County Sheriff’s Department singing the national anthem. The opening ceremony will wrap up with a rendition of “Taps.”
The musical acts performing at this year’s Vets Summer Fest include Dana Fuchs, an acclaimed American singer and songwriter known for a mix of Southern rock, soul, roots and blues. Two of Fuch’s albums, Bliss Avenue and Songs from the Road reached the Top 10 of the Blues Album Chart of Billboard magazine. Fuchs will take the stage at 3 p.m., after an opening act by local favorites Atlanta Café Band. DeStefano’s own classical rock band, B-Sides, will round out the music portion of the event at 5:30 p.m.
In addition to the musical entertainment, there will also be a motorcycle run, car show, bike run, food, beer and wine, and some 60 vendors. Family-friendly events for the children in attendance are also on the bill for the festival.
“It’s going to be really good,” DeStefano said. “And the money raised from this event goes a long way in helping us continue our cause.”
The turnout for last year’s Vets Summer Fest was approximately 2,000 people. According to DeStefano, an average of 1,500 attendees is a typical turnout. The festival is sponsored by Millington Bank, Transwestern, Navitend, WRNJ, WXPN and Joe Hirsh Productions.
Chimileski attributes OCO’s ongoing success to a nonpartisan focus on helping homeless veterans.
“We keep ourselves non-political and all volunteers are welcome – not just vets,” Chimileski stated. “Every form of help is important as it all goes to the men and women who are still on the streets. And everyone has something that they can do to help.”