Troubled veterans find heavenly haven at Shepherd’s Heart
The softly-lit, green-hued hallway is quiet and warm, and the 10 men inside their rooms are safe for the moment.
Only memory can get to them here.
The Rev. Michael Wurschmidt walks slowly past the closed doors, a sentry in cleric’s clothing.
“I never saw combat, but I know what it can do to someone,” said Wurschmidt, pastor of Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship in Uptown, an episcopal parish and home for homeless veterans.
As many as 250 veterans are homeless on any given night in Southwestern Pennsylvania, according to the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, the fifth-largest VA system in the nation. About 1,100 of the region’s estimated 227,000 veterans are homeless at some point each year.
The estimates are based on visits to homeless shelters by Veterans Administration representatives.
“Following Vietnam, it took 10 years for us to realize this was a problem,” said Wurschmidt, who works as a VA chaplain. “It’s not going to take that long this time.”
The Shepherd’s Heart Veterans Home can house as many as 10 veterans. In its first six months, it has helped 18 veterans “graduate” to a more stable life, Wurschmidt said.
About one-third of homeless veterans have seen combat, but the reasons a person becomes homeless rarely trace back to one incident or a simple explanation, he said.
“Some of them are service-oriented injuries. Some of them are just, you know, life struggles once they left the military,” Wurschmidt said. Drugs and alcohol often play a role.
Shepherd’s Heart was conceived to fill a gap in the support system for veterans, between the streets and VA programs, which require a person’s system to be drug-free before they’re admitted.
“This is relatively new,” said Joseph Savino, a VA social worker.
The VA paid $60,000 of the veterans home’s $100,000 renovation. The government pays Shepherd’s Heart $31 each day for each veteran. It’s enough to pay about half the home’s $200,000 annual budget.
The rest of the money comes from donations and the other 80 or so churches in the Episcopal diocese, said Wurschmidt, who credited Episcopal Bishop Robert Duncan with keeping the operation going.
The program could become a national model, Savino and Wurschmidt said.
“I’ve got 12 chaplains — Reserve chaplains, National Guard chaplains — who have seen combat, who have contacted me from cities around the United States,” Wurschmidt said. “They want to replicate this. These guys see the great need.”
The oldest in the Shepherd’s Heart program is a Vietnam-era veteran in his early 60s; the youngest, an Iraq war veteran in his early 20s. Plans are to add two beds for women on the second floor of the converted Crawford Roberts church, Wurschmidt said.
“As a pastor, and as a chaplain, part of my job is to look at the whole picture — to love them with God’s love and, especially the veterans, to love them because of what many of them have done for our country. It’s unbelievable what some of these guys have done for our country,” Wurschmidt said.
The remnants of their duty — brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, among them — can be devastating. Families collapse. Many veterans turn to alcohol or drugs, and the isolation of the street beckons.
“They’ve caused pain for their loved ones. They don’t want to do that again, so they isolate themselves,” Wurschmidt said.
He began walking those streets soon after his family’s move to Pittsburgh 14 years ago. As he did in Denver, where he lived before, Wurschmidt went looking for homeless enclaves.
“I was blown away by the number of Vietnam veterans on the streets,” he said. Slowly, word spread about the work of “Pastor Mike.” People began to find him.
Lonnie Green, 53, was one of them.
A Vietnam-era veteran, Green spent parts of the last 11 years on the streets. In July, he decided he had enough.
“God said, ‘Go see Pastor Mike.’ And (Wurschmidt) said, ‘We’ve got a place for you,’ ” Green said.
Shepherd’s Heart Veterans Home had just opened.
“I was broke up,” said Green, a barrel of a man with gray-flecked hair and beard. “I couldn’t stop crying. There was no place to turn. I was crying so much that Pastor Mike couldn’t do anything but cry with me.”
“This was a rescue, and a blessing for me,” said Green as he finished his cup of coffee and got ready to leave for his job at the VA — a job he was able to get after going through Shepherd’s Heart’s drug and alcohol programs.
When veterans like Green find a job, Shepherd’s Heart begins charging them rent. It’s usually a small percentage of their income, to get them in the habit of paying bills, Wurschmidt said. Administrators set aside the money so the person has enough saved to pay a deposit on an apartment, he said.
Once at Shepherd’s Heart, veterans can fill out all the paperwork the VA requires, making them eligible for counseling and other long-term help, Savino said. The waiting list to get in — Wurschmidt selects only those he says are ready for recovery — is usually six to eight veterans, Savino said.
The church building includes a drop-in center on the first floor, where homeless people can eat or get out of the cold in the morning, before soup kitchens open. On the third floor, a newly renovated sanctuary serves a poor but active congregation of about 200.
“After the tsunami (in 2005), they raised $800 for Shepherd’s Heart orphanage in Sri Lanka,” Wurschmidt said. “It’s amazing when the poor give. Sometimes, we get so inward-looking into our own broken place, we’re not able to give of ourselves.”
There’s a benefit for givers, too, said Tom Parks, 45, who has lived at Shepherd’s Heart since late November.
“We all take care of each other in here,” said Parks, who served in the Army from 1978-81. “It makes me feel good that I can help someone. It’s a gift.”