The sidewalks are bustling as you walk up to the American GI Forum. Scattered with people who live there and up the street at Haven for Hope. Some live nowhere. Some sing on the steps of the building while others beg for money.
American GI Forum is one of 535 partner agencies working with the San Antonio Food Bank to combat hunger in our community. Once a week, Rosemary Aguilar, am employee, picks up more than 1,000 pounds of food from the Food Bank that will eventually be cooked and served to residents at the facility. She said food from the Food Bank accounts for nearly 90% of what they feed their veterans.
The facility has a capacity of 125 beds, and at any given time is nearly full with male and female residents who have served our country in the military. The program is intended to prevent homelessness among veterans. Many have no family or friends, and some struggle with addiction after serving in the military.
Over the past few years, the average age of residents has been 30-40 years old. The facility serves short-term and long-term residents who have been honorably discharged from the military. Short-term residents are assisted in finding long-term housing needs and permanent residents have the comfort of a room in a dorm-style wing of the facility.
One of the veterans found in the lobby isn’t a resident, but an employee. Mike Hernandez served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years. He’s proud of the service he provided to his country, and loves working in an organization that supports and re-directs veterans. He explains why he thinks so many veterans who walk through these doors struggle with addiction.
“When you send someone off to war, you don’t realize how much it changes them,” he said. “They don’t come back the same.”
He goes on to explain how difficult the transition is from military life to civilian life. Many people can’t make it. He should know. Mike is one of them.
Mike isn’t just employed with a partner agency; he also has to seek assistance from partner agencies. When discharged in 2006, his family was succeeding financially and wanted for nothing. But when his job search had gone on a year, and his savings tapped out, Mike moved his family to Detroit to find work and live with his in-laws. Then Detroit crashed and no one could find a job.
Mike moved back to San Antonio to find work and was separated from his wife Shannon and their three girls for more than six months. It was hard for him moving from relative to relative while looking for work. He even took day labor jobs, lining up at 5 a.m., hoping for a day's work and wage. This wasn’t the future he had dreamed of when he said goodbye to the military.
This is a life Mike never imagined for himself or his children. He feels blessed to have found a job at the American GI Forum. Employed, he quickly moved his family back to San Antonio and hoped to turn their lives around. He qualified for a veteran housing program and bought a home on the City’s Eastside. But soon, violence in schools made him and his wife feel uneasy about sending their girls to school, so Shannon began homeschooling. Now, the family struggles to make ends meet.
“I’m struggling each month to keep above debt, but we just can’t make it," he said. "Little things set us back—a broken down car, medical expenses. I feel like I’m constantly drowning."
Mike is a proud father. When he started “shopping” at his parents’ home for groceries he knew it was time to put his pride aside and ask for help. He and his wife signed up for food stamps while they got back on track. Things were looking up, only to start falling apart again. Not wanting to re-apply for food stamps, Mike chose to seek another form of assistance: food from a food pantry.
“I feel embarrassed, there’s no other way to say it," he said. "What man would want to say, 'I can’t provide for my family?' But I know it helps us."
Mike is happy helping vets get their lives back on track and improve their current situations. He knows many of the men and women who walk through his front doors would be homeless if it weren’t for the agency. He is equally grateful for the assistance of the Food Bank.
“There aren’t enough words to express my family’s gratitude. I don’t want to think about what would happen to us if we couldn’t access the pantry. Even my elderly neighbor goes to the pantry. There are more people than you think who struggle to eat.”
This story has been republished with permission from the San Antonio Food Bank's blog.
*Featured/top image: Mike Hernandez and his family at a mobile food distribution hosted by the San Antonio Food Bank. Courtesy photo.