Help for homeless veterans comes from Milwaukee group

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MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A recent federal study found more than 600,000 people are homeless across the country, and one in 10 of them is a U.S. veteran. Now, one group is reaching out to give Milwaukee's homeless veterans a hand up.

Carl Ellis is in his 50s. He is a U.S. veteran, and he is living in a Milwaukee shelter.

Ellis is one of the estimated hundreds of veterans in Milwaukee without a place to call home.

"To be homeless, to me, is like there's no hope," Ellis said.

Ellis joined the Army right out of high school. After leaving the service in 1981, Ellis says he became lost while fighting depression and low self-esteem. Once he landed on the streets, Ellis says he had difficulty holding onto the good memories -- including any photos of his time spent in the military.

"You try to keep your keepsakes, your personal things. Over the years you can't keep them cause you have nowhere to keep yourself," Ellis said.

Kathy Hawkins has been involved with Wisconsin Veterans Stand Down since its inception more than two decades ago. Its mission is simple: gather as many resources as possible in one place, on one day for homeless veterans -- from things as small as a haircut to medical tests, housing applications, employment help and even legal counsel.

"Our vets served our country.  We asked them to do things they didn't want to do and they did it.  Now it's important that we work for them and do things for them," Hawkins said.

While much of today's homeless vets are not from the most recent wars, Hawkins says she's seeing the population change. She expects the number of veterans living on the streets to grow.

"When we started we saw a majority of World War II vets and then it evolved to Korean then it evolved to Vietnam vets and now we're starting to see, beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraqi vets," Hawkins said.

"For the people that's coming back, the younger generation, I can only pray for them. It's going to be rough," Ellis said.

Veterans return with training and a skill set you can only get in the military. They often lack qualifications many employers look for. These include civilian job experience and higher education. Then, there are the personal challenges.

"There's all different causes.  All the way from mental health issues to just don't have the resources.  PTSD is a very big one," Hawkins said.

For Ellis, it was being thrown back into the civilian world after only knowing adulthood in the military. That led to alcoholism.

"I didn't want no one to get to know me. I just trusted in the bottle in which I later found out was not my friend," Ellis said.

After nearly three decades, things are looking up for Ellis. He's coming up on a year of sobriety, has grown closer to his son and has worked through many of the personal issues which held him down.

"My future looks bright. It's hard to describe. It's good to be me again," Ellis said.

It is a journey Ellis feels he would not have completed without the help of others, like Wisconsin Veterans Stand Down.

"There's some that's really struggling and can't, but there's people to catch them. Not to give them a handout, but to give them a hand," Ellis said.

"As long as there's homeless vets we'll continue. As long as we have resources to continue, we will do it," Hawkins said.

Ellis is on his way to getting his driver's license back. He is also working on getting a home for him and his son -- just two of the many positives that have come from groups accepting help.

The organization holds events twice a year. The next event is coming up in September.

CLICK HERE for additional information on the Wisconsin Veterans Stand Down group.