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Program reaches out to homeless Western Pennsylvania veterans

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 8:47 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Michael Ames receives a haircut from Rachel Bucci, a volunteer with the South Hills Beauty Academy, on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, during the sixth annual Stand Down event at the Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, Uptown.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Dallas Corleone, 39, a Marine Corps veteran, receives a haircut from volunteer Dan 'The Barber' Williams on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, during the sixth annual Stand Down event at the Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, Uptown.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Sandy Lilly, 60, a Marine Corps veteran, receives Army surplus clothing from volunteers of BNY Mellon on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, during the sixth annual Stand Down event on Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013. Homeless veterans and families received free food, vision and dental care, haircuts, showers and other goods and services at the Shepherd's Heart Fellowship, Uptown.

The Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania can count Cindy Clark as one of its many success stories.

Before coming to the nonprofit veteran support group in March 2012 for help, Army veteran Clark, 51, had no permanent address and few job prospects. The group required her to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings and counseled her on job searches.

In July 2012, Clark got an apartment in Sharpsburg, and she is working in a North Hills senior care center.

“I'd like to see people make it like I did,” Clark said on Saturday, watching as hundreds of volunteers reached out to help local homeless veterans in an Uptown church.

Organizers said more than 500 homeless veterans and family members attended the sixth annual Stand Down event in Shepherd's Heart Fellowship. For some, the day provided a brief respite from the streets and a place to clean up, obtain some fresh clothing and grab a meal. Volunteers and social service agencies provided assistance with housing, food, medical care, eye exams and glasses, dental care, haircuts, job search advice and other services.

“This shows how nonprofits and the private sector can work together to address a problem that's our problem to solve,” said Al Mercer, executive director of the leadership program, based in the South Side. “When I say ‘our,' I mean the community.”

Annually, the group serves more than 2,100 veterans and their families and makes 5,000 referrals for essential services.

In 2009, the federal government announced an initiative to end veterans' homelessness by the end of 2015, and that number has been steadily dropping. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are about 62,000 homeless veterans nationwide.

According to statistics from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Allegheny County's Department of Human Services reported the homeless veteran population fell in the county from 330 in 2012 to 207 in 2013. In 2011-12, there was a 5 percent increase in veterans' homelessness in the county. Mercer said the increase might be the result of more veterans coming forward for help.

“Homeless veterans are coming out of the woodwork, so to speak,” Mercer said. “Under the bridges, they're out of sight, out of mind.”

Mercer estimated that within the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, including several Southwestern Pennsylvania counties and portions of West Virginia and Ohio, there are about 238,000 veterans. Of those, he said, reports are that 10 percent are living below the poverty line, and 2,300 are at risk of being homeless or already are homeless.

BNY Mellon, a sponsor of Saturday's event, donated $100,000 to the Veterans Leadership Program on Friday for ongoing support efforts.

“Veterans don't need us to pick them up,” said Michele Q. Margittai, leadership program director of development and community relations. “They need us to walk alongside them as they live in our area.”

One man who identified himself as Marine Corps veteran Dallas Corleone said he was grateful for the services offered Saturday. He said he's been living on Downtown streets and sleeping on the steps of a church since arriving in Pittsburgh nearly two years ago, but he plans to use the services of the leadership program.

“It's good that they have this,” Corleone said. “It shows that people do care about our veterans.”

For more information about the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, call 412-481-8200.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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