Torita Watkins, a Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, endured hard times after separating from the Navy. Within a short period of time, her child’s father died, she was a victim of identity theft and she found herself facing homelessness. Also, as a fulltime student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in accounting, she had almost depleted her savings and didn’t know how she would continue to pay rent.
“I felt stuck, like I couldn’t move forward,” Watkins recalls. She had applied for many jobs and received no responses.
Then a friend and fellow Veteran told her about the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program for Veterans. With the help of a social worker at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago, Torita was able to secure stable housing for herself and her daughter through the HUD-VASH program.
But finding work was still a monumental challenge. Since separating from the military in 2007 she had held only one job, a seasonal position at a retail store. Friends advised her to apply for jobs everywhere, even in the fast-food industry, although she didn’t want to. Even so, she applied, but with no results. Torita began to think that her three-year employment gap was hampering her search.
Torita’s caseworker referred her to Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services (HVCES) for help. During employment counseling sessions, they explored her short- and long-term career goals. Torita’s immediate goal was simply to get a job; her long-range goal was to learn how to renovate properties and rent them out. She believed this career track would provide a stable source of income for raising a daughter.
“Things changed in my life when I started going to church and working on my relationship with God,” Watkins said. Shortly thereafter, VA connected Torita with the Chicago Metropolitan YWCA, one of HVCES’ community partners.which offered the Y-Construct training program through partnership with ComEd. Through the Y-Construct Program, Torita learned about her desired career pathway and was hired as an intern at Primera Engineers, Ltd, an engineering firm. Later she accepted a full-time permanent position as an accounting/human resources assistant that aligned with her accounting education.
During her career-building process, Torita worked closely with Trinity Dishmon, a YWCA economic empowerment coach who provided support, encouragement, and motivation. Trinity helped Torita recognize that she had gained skills during her military service that were credible and relevant to a civilian career. The YWCA provided training on resume writing and interview skills and connected Torita with Dress for Success, a program that provides business clothes for job interviews. ComEd and the YWCA also arranged interviews for Torita with various companies.
Torita is grateful for all the help from HUD-VASH and HVCES, and the ComEd and YWCA’s Construct Partnership Program, which have given her the skills and confidence to succeed. Her new goal is to finish her accounting degree, and she will return to school in a few months. Torita’s ultimate dream is to buy a house — a real home for her and her daughter — and she is working diligently to re-establish her credit following the identity theft.
Every day, HVCES connects Veterans like Torita with training and employment opportunities that align with their education, experience, and goals through outreach and partnership building. The program provided construction training to secure entry-level positions in construction-related fields, and connected her with a job in a related field that uses her education in accounting.
VA helps to make positive outcomes possible for Veterans, even for those who faced homelessness a few short years ago.
- Visit VA’s website to learn about employment initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Refer Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless to their local VA Medical Center, where VA staff are ready to assist, or urge them to call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838).
Beatrice Smith-Redd is a community employment coordinator for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; coordinating employment opportunities for Veterans in the Chicago Area. She has over 10 years of experience developing and training employees at all organizational levels, augmented by a Master of Arts Degree in Training and Development from Roosevelt University. Mrs. Smith-Redd has devoted her career to empowering employees to succeed in the workplace; she is also the proud daughter of a Korean War Veteran.