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Rahm Emanuel’s new plan for Chicago’s returning vets

Mayor Rahm Emanuel arrives greets volunteers veterans. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel arrives and greets volunteers and veterans. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2012 10:42AM

Just in time for Memorial Day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is launching a “Returning Veterans Initiative” to help find jobs for soldiers coming home to Chicago, drive down unemployment rates now triple the national average and smooth their transition to civilian life.

With the end of the Iraq War and the “winding down” of the war in Afghanistan, Emanuel noted that “many heroes” are returning home to Chicago without the infrastructure to support them.

“It is essential that, as a city, we are prepared to welcome these men and women back and are prepared to help them find employment, resources and other assistance as they integrate back into civilian life,” the mayor said in a press release.

“Our soldiers provide a service for which we all owe a debt of gratitude and it is our collective moral obligation to make sure they have a smooth return home.”

The mayor cited statistics that show that: one in three of the nation’s homeless men are veterans; one in four are suffering from either depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and that the jobless rate for veterans is three times higher than the national average.

The so-called “Returning Veterans Initiative” is aimed at addressing those chronic problems.

The city plans to open a new Veterans Employment Center next to an existing city community center at 4740 N. Sheridan to offer job placement services, career counseling and training resources to returning vets.

The city will also work with potential employers to “help them understand the unique challenges” that returning veterans face when attempting to re-enter the workforce.

The Department of Family and Support Services will offer similar services at every community center it operates so veterans can access the one closest proximity to their homes.

To address the unique health challenges facing disabled veterans, the city will open a new Veterans Resource Office at the Mayor’s Office of People with Disabilities. The location — across the street from the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center and the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs — will ensure that veterans have “immediate and convenient access” to the services they desperately need, the city says.

A “comprehensive online resource guide” will be created to help veterans wade through the bureaucratic maze of federal, state and local resources available to them in the Chicago area.

Emanuel said he also plans to send postcards to all returning Chicago veterans thanking them for their service and informing them of the new resources at their disposal.

Will Schmutz, director and community liaison for the city’s Advisory Council on Veterans Affairs, said a lot of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning to Chicago neighborhoods with “nobody they can relate to” about their problems.

“Back in the days after World War II and Viet Nam, there were hundreds of guys in every neighborhood. There was always somebody you could talk to. Now, the individual coming home is basically isolated. They need a point of contact,” he said.

Veterans desperately need help in sorting through the 7,000 websites across the nation for veterans and military families, Schmutz said.

“How does anybody sit there and navigate all that and say, ‘This is the organization I should contact? Are they really gonna help me?’ ” he said.

“There’s nothing like looking somebody in the eye, giving them a handshake and saying, ‘How can I help you?’ ”

Earlier this month, the CTA followed the city’s lead in signing an executive order establishing a veterans hiring preference.

Veterans will also be identified and recruited for CTA jobs — including bus drivers, motormen, mechanics, engineers and managers — by the National Able Network, a workforce development agency.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Housing Authority and Volunteers of America Illinois celebrated the grand opening of a housing development that will provide support services for more than 80 veterans each year suffering from drug or alcohol addictions, mental health issues, homelessness or unemployment.

Hope Manor Apartments was built on land owned and donated by the city.

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