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After war, a place to call home

By Chris Davis, CNN
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Helping homeless veterans
  • Alex Garcia, an Iraq war veteran, helps homeless vets at a Chicago-area shelter
  • Garcia, 25, says he feels lucky he never needed the shelter
  • Bob "Doc" Adams opened the shelter in 2007, mainly for Iraq and Afghanistan vets
  • The veterans learn how to manage their money and interview for jobs

Wheaton, Illinois (CNN) -- Alex Garcia is an Iraq war veteran who feels lucky. He's never needed the homeless shelter where he works.

With his easy smile and a boyish face, Iraqi kids took to calling him "baby" in the war zone, so much that his superiors in Baghdad had him wear a bandana across his face.

After serving from 2004 to 2005 during the height of Iraq's insurgency, Garcia, 25, says he had a relatively stress-free transition back to civilian life.

Today, Garcia works at the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton, Illinois, helping others who didn't have such an easy time returning from war.

It doesn't happen overnight, he explains, but it is a process to end up with nowhere to call home.

"That's ultimately what it is ... you burn one too many bridges" Garcia says.

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He starting working at the shelter in 2008, a year after Vietnam vet Bob "Doc" Adams opened it.

Adams got the idea after visiting a similar shelter in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1997 and thinking, "Why can't we do that here?"

So 10 years later, with help from other veterans, local unions and a grant from Dupage County, he started the shelter.

Adams knows all too well the downward spiral that leads to a life on the streets. Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is often the reason many veterans end up without a roof over their heads.

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"It is a destroyer of spirits, it is a destroyer of relationships, it plays havoc on people's employment and it touches every fabric of someone's life," Adams said.

In Dupage County, recent statistics show that one out of every three people who are homeless are veterans

Since the opening, Adams has helped more than 30 homeless veterans, whose service has spanned from Korea to Afghanistan.

While he's happy to help older veterans, Adams started the shelter mainly for younger warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan who appear to have more time on the battlefield than soldiers from his generation.

"The kinds of PTSD symptoms I've seen amongst those veterans is a much more powerful strain than even the ones among my era," he says.

In addition to small financing from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the shelter is also supported by donations from around northeast Illinois.

People donate items such as nonperishable foods and electronics, including a large television for the common area.

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The shelter is looking to double its capacity once it opens a new apartment building nearby.

Adams feels that inexpensive housing is a pivotal step for veterans trying to transition to civilian life.

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At the shelter, there is a daily routine designed to mirror military life. For veterans, it is a way to help warriors transition from the streets back into a more self-sustaining life.

The rigid program starts in the morning with room inspections, followed by a class on finance management and employment. The instructor leads the the veterans through mock interviews and prepares the students for tough interview questions.

During his evening shift, Garcia checks around the shelter to make sure that the assigned duties are accomplished before lights out.

He says he hopes to stay on with "Doc" Adams because "it's a moving force that I want to be a part of."