Shining light in the deepest darkness: Operation Chillout lifeline for veterans

By Jillian Risberg

It’s unfathomable to comprehend how someone who fought on the front lines of our military is now living on the streets— but the tragic reality about homelessness in America often focuses on our veterans.

As New Jersey’s only all-volunteer mobile outreach for homeless veterans, Operation Chillout gives them the tools and support they need to rebuild their lives.

“In a year we’ll be celebrating our 20th anniversary,” says Raymond Chimileski, who founded the organization Dec. 21, 2000 in Dover for a homeless Vietnam veteran living under a bridge. “We never expected to be doing this again, that’s for sure.”

They have no office, no brick and mortar, no salaried staff or employees. They’re not professionals or caseworkers — just a group of friends.

“Civilians curious why this was happening and what could we do,” says Chimileski, a former social worker with the state of New Jersey and New York, who did a lot of his work in Paterson, Newark, Trenton and NYC.

According to the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, there are roughly 2,500 to 3,000 homeless veterans in the Garden State, while the Bureau of Census’ figure is  630. And in 2015, the US Department of Veterans Affairs says it provided housing for almost 1,300 homeless vets here.

“I was not afraid to take a ride down to Paterson to the railroad tracks where we used to meet homeless vets at the post office,” the executive director says. “I started the behavior of ‘this is okay, these people are not dangerous; it’s safe to go there.’”

He says we have to give a lot of credit to our homeless vets for the role that they play in their communities, protecting non-veteran homeless, and they know how to survive.

“They take the alpha position; make sure that nobody’s coming in and doing funny stuff with the other, more vulnerable people,” Chimileski  says. “Veterans are well-trained, they’re very resilient — and have skills that you and I would never learn unless we become homeless.”

It’s a 24/7 gig and Chillout has a core leadership team of 12 people that meet every month to determine how to provide services or care for the homeless in different areas.

They continue to respond to homeless vets throughout the entire state of New Jersey and Chimileski says sometimes things are written in the stars.

“We’ve been able, for one reason or another to go for 20 years — doing it as we do, the way we do it for the reasons that we do it,” the executive director says. “Every donation that comes in, every case of backpacks, every case of warm coats, sleeping bags, whatever — goes directly to the people that we serve.

“We’ve been in every county and also have a rapid response team in six counties in Northeast Pennsylvania and a chapter in Rhode Island,” he says.

They find many of the homeless vets through their two seasonal projects, the winter program begins in November and finishes when the last backpack is distributed, usually in the middle of February.

As they prepare for Street Streak — where they ask for donations of new, warm clothing (hooded sweatshirt, knit cap, thermal underwear, heavy socks, waterproof non-leather gloves), they are reminded of how this all began.

It was the homeless Dover vet who explained how he was hurting.

‘It’s cold, I need anything that you would need,’ he told them back then.

“So we went down to the Army/Navy store, bought all those things and brought it back to him,” Chimileski says.

And that formula stuck.“We’re still putting those same supplies in backpacks 20 years later and giving them away,” the executive director says. “We’ve been working this for so long that we know a lot of the areas where the homeless veterans congregate.”

That could be a soup kitchen or interim temporary housing situation.

According to Chimileski, they provide their resources to about 65 locations that they frequent throughout the winter and summer.

For the summer campaign (starting Memorial Day and ending Labor Day), they collect and deliver cases of bottled water, t-shirts and baseball caps.

“This year we’re targeting supplies for about 1500 backpacks and this past summer we distributed about 35,000 bottles of water,” he says.

Another way that they get referrals is through their hotline, where agencies, police, EMTs, family members — the veterans themselves can call, asking for assistance.

“We check out that the person calling is a veteran,” the executive director says. “This could be a case where after several months the rent wasn’t paid and the vet is evicted, winds up on the street.”

So far this year they placed about 340 homeless veterans, rescued them off the street and put them into temporary housing, which is usually local to where they’re calling from.

“If they’re calling from Hackensack, we’re going to find a temporary location in Hackensack in a motel and put you up 3 to 5 days,” Chimileski says. “Whatever it takes for you to get connected to the agencies that are going to work with you, do case management, get your VA healthcare established and find you a spot for permanent housing.”And the VA and Catholic Charities bring in a number of referrals.

“Up to 10/12 a week,” says the executive director. “We’re taking as many as we get and those are the numbers of people that we’re adding to our seasonal campaign.”

In 2017, Chillout built their first micro (tiny) home — an RV on wheels that soon a formerly homeless veteran will live in for up to two years.

“It’s transitional housing that’s going to be here right in Long Valley, where our headquarters is at a working farm — Ort Farms,” Chimileski says. “During those two years the veteran will be able to work on the farm with Rutgers Veteran’s Agricultural Program to get his certification as a Master Farmer.”

According to the executive director, it’s a unique project and the only one of its kind in the Garden State. But you can find others in Farm Belt states such as Oklahoma and Kansas.

“Home Depot Charitable Foundation is building our patio and deck for the home, pro bono; they gave us a grant,” he says. “With the ordinance that Washington Township wrote, we are able to build up to five micro homes in Long Valley, one per property. And one of our volunteers works for the Ort family, so the property was given to us for free.”

This micro home is mobile because Chimileski says they never intended to keep it there. They actually expected to take it on the move to different counties requesting temporary housing. It just so happens that this one will probably become permanent in Long Valley.

As we approach Veteran’s Day, it is important to know that not all veterans are homeless. One out of every five homeless people that you see on the street probably is a veteran.

“It’s 20 percent of the population and some places, like the urban areas and inner cities, one out of four persons could be a veteran,” the executive director says. “So it’s a time to remember that the people we pass on the street who we would like to help out; Operation Chillout is taking it to the next step — we actually are helping them out.”

He says they are a dedicated, 501c3 not-for-profit, which means any donation to them can be taken as a tax deduction the following year.

“When we thank our veterans for their service, we should remember them for all the good things they did and not paint them with a negative stereotype,” Chimileski says.

Remember that veterans are our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, our fathers, our uncles and we’re all in this together.

“We support them when they’re fighting for us and we need to make sure that we support them when they come back,” he says.

Chimileski says it is by no means solving the problem.

“We’re here to help each person as we find them; one person, one gift,” says the executive director. “With that low expectation, we’ve been able to do what we do.”

The organization was audited a few years ago so they decided to look at their demographics to determine where their referrals were coming from.
“And it was suggested that we let people know that if all the homeless vets — the men and women that Operation Chillout has been serving since Dec. 21, 2000 could come together in one place and hold hands from Long Valley to the Green in Morristown, the line would be 22 miles long,” Chimileski says. “That’s pretty amazing.”The number of homeless vets is on the rise and they are actually meeting more on the street.

As disheartening as this may sound, the executive director says they have monthly success stories. The numbers of veterans who they’ve helped is proportionate to how old they are when they meet them.

“The Vietnam vets that we met 20 years ago, we know that some of them still live on the street,” he says. “They’re never gonna come in until they’re physically unable to live on the street. They’ve been acculturated to that system of dependency and care — of soup kitchens and agencies.”

Chillout also gets the young men and women just returning from the Middle East, where they may have done three, four or five tours.

“They come back and their whole lives are disrupted because they can’t continue where they left off,” Chimileski says. “ They have PTSD, emotional challenges, family challenges, economic challenges — and they wind up homeless very young, in their 30s.”

If Chillout can intervene early, he says they can break the cycle of dependency and get the vets connected with services to turn their lives around, so they don’t end up like their brothers from Vietnam on the street for more than 50 years.

When it comes to his endless efforts to make a difference for this population, the executive director says it’s a much needed thing.

“When we met at the end of December (2000), a few of us with our wives — people compared notes, ‘what did you do on your winter break,’” Chimileski says.

One friend went to Florida, another couple went skiing in Vermont and the executive director told them he helped out a homeless veteran.

“‘Tell us more,’ so I told them the story about going there and meeting the guy,” Chimileski  says, adding that one of the wives asked when it happened.

 

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