LORAIN, Ohio – Vietnam veteran Leonard Miller may have been laid to rest last November without any family present, but he didn’t die alone.
Among the more than 40 people who filled a room at the Andras Crematory & Funeral Home in Lorain for his memorial service, then attended his burial at the Ohio Western Reserve National Cemetery in Rittman, were staff and fellow residents of the Valor Home residential facility for homeless vets in Lorain.
Folks who proudly called themselves Miller’s “family.”
The 75-year-old Pennsylvania native, who had seven honorable discharges from the Army in repeated re-enlistments from 1963-1985, and served four tours in Vietnam, had lived for nearly a year at Valor Home, 221 West 21st St. Family members could not be located when he died.
“He felt safe here. He was cared for here,” said Eileen Scully, program manager, who made the first funeral arrangements for a Valor Home resident since the facility opened in 2014. “It’s a brotherhood, and we as staff try to encourage that. We’re a community.”
The bonds of military service were reflected during Miller’s final honors.
As Sam Felton, commander of the Disabled American Veterans Post 20 and president of the Valor Home advisory board, remarked at the funeral, “I’ve heard it said that he (Miller) didn’t have any family, but just look around the room and you’ll see that we are family. We are the biggest family, the greatest family of all.”
Homeless vets find family at Valor Home
Valor Home is one of several residential facilities for homeless veterans in Lorain, Summit, Trumbull and Portage counties operated by the nonprofit Family and Community Services agency in Ravenna.
The transitional housing facilities are funded by stipends from the Department of Veterans Affairs, money from the state, and private grants and donations. Valor Home also accepts donations including clothing, bed linens, art supplies, boxed and canned food, water and other items.
The homes not only offer shelter and meals, but programs enabling homeless vets to find jobs, education, physical and mental rehabilitation, resolve legal issues and ultimately move into their own residences. The goal is self-sufficiency.
Matthew Slater, director of veterans services, said Family and Community Services has handled about 5,000 homeless veterans (now roughly 500 annually) since the first facility opened in 2005.
He said most of the facilities are routinely about 90 percent full, offering 110 beds. “We know there’s a need out there,” Slater said.
The agency, which started in the 1940s to support the families of military members serving abroad during World War II, tries to avoid duplicating services for homeless vets offered by other local groups and agencies, according to Slater.
One innovation is their use of creative arts therapy as “a different way for veterans to tell their story of trauma,” he noted.
The recent funeral arranged by Valor Home in Lorain is not the first time a facility has laid a resident to rest when family members could not be found, according to Slater.
“It’s uncommon, but kind of the silver lining is seeing the staff, residents and community rally around. It shows how much they care,” he said.
The average stay at Valor Home is six to nine months, according to Scully. “If they’re here longer than that, they lose steam . . . they get complacent, they get comfortable. We want to keep them motivated while they’re here.”
I’ve heard it said that he didn’t have any family, but just look around the room.
The 21,000-square-foot facility has 30 individual bedrooms but currently, with 18 residents, is not at full capacity. Scully said that even though the home is getting referrals from the Lorain County Veterans Treatment Court and social services, the word still needs to spread about Valor Home’s availability.
Ages of residents have ranged from 23 to 75, and “we’re seeing a lot of the Iraq war vets,” Scully noted.
Reasons for their homelessness vary. “It’s just life circumstances. Trauma happens to everybody, and that’s hard to bounce back from,” she said.
“Drug and alcohol issues, mental health and economic stuff are probably the biggest (reasons for homelessness), and having burned bridges with family and friends,” she added.
Fewer than a half-dozen of the 100 vets served by Valor Home so far have been repeat residents.
Scully believes the program works because of the support of fellow vets, and a caring attitude.
“I’d like to think it’s repeatedly being shown and told that we care for them, and we’re here to support you,” she said. “They have a lot of trust issues. But we encourage them to think of Valor Home as their home while they’re here.”
And they do, according to Army veteran Carmen Tucker, 54, who was homeless for the first time for nearly three months before moving into Valor Home.
“We’re like family here,” he said. “To have a place willing to get you on your feet and find out the challenges you have in life is exceptional, and Valor home provides that for us.”
In addition to the helping camaraderie of being around other veterans, “you have a staff that will put you on a program where you can help yourself, and that means a lot because I don’t think too many veterans, or too many people for that matter, like handouts,” he added.
“They want to succeed in life,” he said. “If they get a chance, the opportunity to deal with things, I think they can be the person maybe they once were, and aren’t any more.”
Travis Melton, 31, served in the Navy 2007-2012 but ran into drug and legal problems after being discharged, and was referred to Valor Home by the Lorain County Veterans Treatment Court.
“It’s a great program,” he said. “They just have a lot of stuff here to help straighten your life out.
“Between this place and the Veterans Treatment Court, they’ve been helping me out as much as possible, and putting me in a great position to put my life back on track,” he added.
Living with other veterans also helps, “because regardless to what brought them here, everyone is kind-of in the same boat. So it’s nice being around people you can talk to, who are going through the same struggles, and everybody just kind of helps each other out.”
That connection was evident in his attendance at the funeral for Leonard Miller, who died before Melton came to Valor Home.
But as Melton noted, “Regardless of whether I knew him or not, he was one of our brothers.”