Merrillville Businesses Invest in Veterans
By: Hilary Powell
September 5, 2014 — With fresh ingredients, buffet burners, and servers who sometimes do double duty in the kitchen a café fulfilling one man’s passion is also providing a profit for the homeless and hopeless.
“I’m going to try not to get emotional,” says Brian Cody, a former Marine and co-owner of Veterans Café and Grill in Merrillville, Ind. “You know, my whole desire out of this is you know I want to make money but it’s to help other veterans.”
Cody says Veterans Café and Grill is where serving up a meal helps those who’ve served their country.
The café has been open for about five months.
“It has really been beyond our expectation,” says Bessie Anthony Hitchcock, co-owner of the café. “People are coming from all over. Aurora, O’Hare, and all those different pieces. So, it’s really been a great blessing and a great surprise.”
It’s the for-profit arm of Veterans Life Changing Services in Gary, Ind., a group which also supports a non-profit transitional home for veterans. To hear it from customers the good will initiative also has good food.
“The macaroni and cheese and the dressing is the best, and so this is my new favorite spot,” says Tamika Kwarteng, a restaurant patron.
Half of the café is veteran owned and a portion of every meal served helps fund programs for displaced veterans.
“Part of that was to also give back to homeless veterans, and to help them stabilize themselves and since they couldn’t find a job, to teach them how to become entrepreneurs,” Anthony Hitchcock says.
She runs Veterans Life Changing Services with her husband and says Cody was the catalyst for the eatery.
“Bryan stayed with us for three years also came with a culinary certificate,” she says. “I’m a faith person. And I prayed and I told God, well, ok God, if it’s for me to have a restaurant, when we find a place, let it have all equipment, everything in it.”
“I was homeless,” Cody says. “I’m still homeless technically because I rent, excuse me I stay with a relative right now. They let me cook a little bit. And they saw that I could cook and they gave me the opportunity to cook.”
Though the group gets no government funding and relies solely on donations, they’re efforts represent a growing push locally to see more support for vets without a home.
Construction is set to break ground this month on a Habitat for Humanity home in Merrillville for a veteran family and Gary, Ind. mayor Karen Freeman Wilson is one of five Hoosier mayors to take first lady Michelle Obama’s “Mayor’s challenge to end veteran homelessness.” Mayors work with HUD and commit to end veteran homelessness in their communities.
“It doesn’t matter how much money we have federally if local communities aren’t acting strategically,” says Jennifer Ho, a HUD senior advisor. “The mayor’s challenge was really about getting local leadership to help us make sure that the right people are sitting around the table making good decisions and doing the type of outreach so that we can get every veteran off the street.”
One initiative pushed by the program is a housing first approach to shelter veterans without a wait period.”
Army veteran Marjorie Newman has been homeless twice and says programs that meet veterans at their need battle helplessness.
“It’s hard to describe,” she says. “It’s just basically like a feeling of hopelessness. After you’ve been through stressful situations, trying to get back into your family network, you’re working about ten times as hard you’re making everybody miserable. The program that I’m in, you’ve got a bed you’ve got a roof over your head, you’ve got three meals a day,” she says, referring to Veterans Life Changing Services. “It helps to have someone to talk to that’s been where you’ve been who’s also gone through it.”
Anthony Hitchcock says the meals served here by veterans and for veterans, are a hand up, not out.
“When they go back out they can become stable,” she says.