On Veterans Day we honor those who have been in military service to our nation. They’ve been there when we needed them. But for too many of them, coming home means facing their own time of need.
Josh is 23, but he’s already been through a lot. The homeless Iraq War veteran talked with us at Toni’s Kitchen, a soup kitchen and CFBNJ partner charity in Montclair. Josh had come on a wet and cold Thursday in late October for a hot lunch and a welcoming atmosphere.
He works four days a week with landscaping or construction contractors when he can get a job. But it doesn’t pay enough to provide for permanent housing or a steady supply of food.
Josh tells us his troubles started during his six months in Iraq as a bomb technician. While out on patrol one day, he says, “I stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and was blown 15 feet in the air. My kneecap was completely busted.”
He spent six months in a Veterans Administration hospital stateside, and then was unsure what to do next with his life. “It’s hard when you don’t know where to go,” he says.
Josh has been able to get some help by qualifying for SNAP benefits, but his living situation makes it difficult to take full advantage of that assistance.
“Food stamps are not enough to eat on,” he says, “especially if you’re homeless. You need to store what you buy somewhere if you want to cook. If you can’t keep it anywhere, you just buy food you can eat right away, and that’s way more expensive.”
This year, for the first time, Feeding America’s Hunger in America study asked those who use food banks about their military service. In New Jersey, 20% of households say they have a member who is currently serving or has served in the US military. CLICK here to see Key Findings from Feeding America’s Hunger in America 2014 report, including about our military veterans.
People like Josh can turn to Toni’s Kitchen when they have trouble getting hot cooked meals. But it’s much more than a soup kitchen. Anne Mernin, Director of Outreach, said the goal is to address needs that go beyond food.
“Our mission has shifted,” she says, “to not just feeding people, but to looking at food as a way of lifting community health. We hope to get the people who come here to a higher level of independent living.”
Anne said it starts with building an atmosphere of trust, connection and respect. That’s why volunteers give those who come to eat a “restaurant style” experience, serving them at their tables.
Toni’s Kitchen uses the trust that’s built up to introduce additional help to its clients, including such services as healthcare screenings, SNAP benefit assistance, and a variety of programs for senior citizens.
Josh keeps coming back for more than the food. He likes the atmosphere, and the way the volunteers treat him. Though he is currently homeless, at Toni’s Kitchen, he says, “They make you feel at home.”