Raising Awareness for Veteran Homelessness

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Veteran Gina Ireland tells her story of overcoming homelessness at the barbecue to raise awareness for veteran homelessness.

On Saturday, May 21, Catholic Charities teamed up with Knights of Columbus Council #6735 at St. Peter’s Church in Merchantville to host a barbecue raising awareness for the issue of veteran homelessness in South Jersey.

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Knights of Columbus council members help prepare and serve food.

The barbecue featured veterans assisted by Catholic Charities’ program who shared their stories; a service project to build over 100 “Welcome Home” toiletry kits for veterans; and plenty of food, donated and cooked by the Knights of Columbus.

In spite of the rain, about 75 people, including 30 volunteers from the Knights, attended to enjoy food and fellowship and to learn more about veteran homelessness and what they can do to help.

“I’m looking forward to the personal fulfillment that we have welcomed people in need and given them food and hope,” said Andrew Lipenta, a member of the St. Peter’s Knights council and former State Deputy for the New Jersey Knights of Columbus.

The Knights of Columbus are a Catholic men’s organization that prides itself on volunteerism and community service. Their four key principles are charity, unity, fraternity, and patriotism.

“Today is a great blend of what we cherish. It is an honor to help those who have served our country,” said Tim Gallagher, Grand Knight of the St. Peter’s council. “All gave some; some gave all.”

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Children help pack Welcome Home kits for veterans on the streets.

The St. Peter’s Knights of Columbus council reached out to other councils across the region to collect donations to provide food for the event. Volunteers barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs, while Catholic Charities’ staff and other attendees put together the toiletries kits and wrote thank you cards to veterans, along with some tiny helping hands.

As of January, 2015, the time of the most recent ‘Point in Time’ survey of the homeless population in the State of New Jersey, veterans accounted for just under seven percent of the state’s homeless population. In Catholic Charities’ service area – the six Southernmost New Jersey counties: Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem Counties – the overall homeless population is smaller, but the percentage of homeless individuals who are veterans jumped to 41 percent.

“At Catholic Charities our mission is guided by the fundamental Catholic principle of belief in the inherent dignity of every individual,” said Kevin Hickey, Catholic Charities’ Executive Director. “To shelter those who are homeless, and in particular those homeless who have served our nation, is critical to ensuring that these individuals’ God-given dignity is respected and upheld.”

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Thank You cards for veterans decorated by children at the BBQ.

The event was part of Catholic Charities’ observance of the Jubilee of Mercy, a year declared by Pope Francis for the Catholic Church to pay particular attention to the “works of mercy,” actions such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless.

During the month of May, the agency focused on the work of mercy “Shelter the Homeless.” The barbecue’s aim was to promote meaningful “encounter” between those who have experienced homelessness and members of the broader community. Facilitating such “encounters” has been a major part of Pope Francis’ call for the Church and the world.

Two veterans shared their experiences of homelessness with the group. Gina Ireland and Raymond Reyes, both veterans who sought help from Catholic Charities, shared moving testimonies that brought their listeners to tears. (Read Raymond and Gina’s stories here).

Since the program started in 2011, Catholic Charities’ Veteran Services program (known as ‘Ready, Vet, Go!’) has assisted over 1,200 veteran households who were homeless or on the brink of homelessness to get back into stable housing. Last year alone the program assisted over 300 households’ made up of nearly 700 individuals.

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Knights of Columbus, Catholic Charities Veteran Services staff and veteran speakers Gina and Ray pose for a group picture.

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