On an ordinary day in 2010, Marine Corps Veteran Robert McMahon returned from a fishing trip to find his house completely boarded up and already in foreclosure. The next thing he knew, he was living in a tent near the Chicago River, where he remained for close to three years.
At the time, McMahon was coping with various medical conditions, but he was determined to get back on his feet. After a fellow Marine Veteran recommended he visit the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital for assistance, McMahon quickly went to the VA medical center for help.
When he got there, he was asked a question that would change his life: “Marine, what can we do for you?”
The answer to the question, he found, would later land him in stable housing provided by the Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program.
“Hines VA hospital really cares about the Veterans, and I was pleased that they focused on me as a person and not what my circumstances were,” McMahon said. “If it weren’t for the doctors here, I’d probably be in really bad shape.”
McMahon’s positive experience – the genuine caring of the VA staff – is one that Hines’ leaders hope all Veterans share when they seek assistance.
“We really take pride in treating people with the dignity and respect that they deserve,” said Erin Mangano, the Homeless Program clinical manager at Hines. “I’m proud that Bob [McMahon] had such a good experience.”
Committed to giving back
After receiving medical care and securing stable housing through Hines, McMahon wanted to support his fellow Veterans. He started volunteering at the Hines food pantry to help distribute fresh produce, meat, and nonperishable food to Veterans.
“Volunteering is an opportunity for me to give back to other Veterans,” McMahon said. “It’s an honor to do it and puts a smile on my face.”
Before the pandemic, McMahon hadn’t missed a distribution date in the six years the pantry has been in operation – becoming known as “Bob the meat man” for his oversight of frozen meat distribution.
However, once the coronavirus pandemic hit, the food pantry had to quickly change its operations to continue safely distributing food. For several months, volunteers were not allowed to be on-site, so employees ran the pantry. Instead of having Veterans line up and select food from tables, the food pantry moved to a grab-and-go model with all food pre-packed. For Veterans who have a car, the pantry designated outside parking spots so that employees could put food in the car with minimal contact. Veterans without transportation may walk inside the pantry to pick up their food while following safety restrictions. Fortunately, McMahon was able to rejoin the pantry team by the fall 2020 when volunteers were allowed back on campus.
McMahon lives with faith and deep gratitude for the homeless staff at Hines, abiding by his motto, “Smiles are free.”
- Learn about the HUD-VASH program and enrollment eligibility at gov/homeless/hud-vash.
- Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness should contact the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 877-4AID-VET (877-424-3838).
- Learn about the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital.
Kerry Thomas is a social worker with the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at Hines VA Coordinated Entry Specialist and is also the staff supervisor of the Hines VA Food Pantry.