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EAST CHICAGO — Vietnam war veteran Jim Chancellor and North Township Trustee Frank J. Mrvan are trying to tackle homelessness in Northwest Indiana — one veteran at a time.

“Any hurdle they throw up, we can take down,” said Chancellor, of the nonprofit, American Veterans Collection Inc.

A modest red brick home in East Chicago, recently donated by the local housing authority, is the latest effort to provide wraparound services to Lake County veterans and their families, Mrvan said.

Keeping families together

Chancellor and other volunteers were onsite last week to tear out old plumbing and start rehabbing the rest of the home.

Mrvan hopes to have a veteran — and his or her family — in the home by Memorial Day. 

“Ultimately, our goal is to have someone in the home and self-sufficient,” Mrvan said.

Homelessness in Indiana has declined in recent years, thanks to the influx of transitional housing programs, but hundreds remain jobless or underemployed, in shelters or without a roof of their heads.

Mrvan said he wants to address the root causes of veteran homelessness in Lake County by assisting whomever is selected to live at the Narva Place home with employment assistance, credit counseling, service-connected disability and mental health services for post-traumatic stress disorder, and financial or legal help.

The single-family atmosphere would be unique from other veteran housing and shelters in Lake County because this allows veterans to remain with their families, he said. Over a family's 12-to-24 month stay, rent will be subsidized by the North Township Trustee's office on an income-based sliding scale. 

“Lake County's shelters are set up where men can go to one, and women and children go to another. So we don’t really have a family shelter in all of Lake County,” Mrvan said.

"No one wants to see parents and children separated unnecessarily," he added. "That obviously puts emotional stress on the kids, who are going to school and have to perform well knowing dad is in a shelter or mom is somewhere else."

Last month, Chancellor and the North Township Trustee’s office began work on the East Chicago housing project, thanks to a core group of volunteers and organizations donating time, money and tools. 

The home needs new drywall, doors, plumbing, electrical work, upstairs windows, and a fresh coat of paint, said Brett Birman, Wicker Memorial Park superintendent. It's being converted from a two-unit duplex rental into a three-bedroom single-family home with a backyard and patio deck. 

Once the home is occupied, Birman said Wicker Park will help maintain the building. 

“We cleaned it out. Went through two dumpsters of stuff. Our goal is to get the basement lower level done by the end of next week, and then we’ll move upstairs,” Birman said.

If it were not for volunteers, this rehab would cost upwards of $30,000, he said. 

Home Depot, which has pledged to donate $250 million to veteran-related causes by 2020, provided $9,000 grant to offset the cost of supplies, Chancellor said. 

"Without Home Depot's help, we couldn't have done this," he said.

Tommy Pimentel, assistant store manager for Home Depot in Schererville, was on-site Friday helping out at the East Chicago home. He said Home Depot is also carrying out various remodeling projects for individual veterans in Northwest Indiana as part of that pledge. 

"It's our way of giving back to veterans who served our country," he said. 

Other organizations, such as the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity, are assisting in other ways. 

A local vet gives back

Dean Haskins, of East Chicago, tore up old plumbing at the home Friday. The 37-year-old Marine veteran was on the verge of homelessness this past month until Chancellor stepped in and helped find him an apartment.

Haskins said he's thankful he is able to give back. 

"I don't like asking for help and I certainly didn't expect this. It's humbling," he said. 

Chancellor said there will be educational and job training opportunities for the veteran housed at the Narva home through union apprenticeship programs or fast-track degrees through Purdue, Ivy Tech or Indiana University Northwest. 

Mrvan and other staff members at the North Township Trustee's Office have assisted nearly half a dozen veterans this year, thanks to Mrvan's creation of "restore teams," a network of nonprofits and other support organizations. 

Candidates interested in the Narva home should contact Virginia Carter, chief deputy in the North Township Trustee's Office. 

Carter can be reached via email at carterv@ntto.net, 219-398-2435 (office) or 219-798-4272 (cell).

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Public safety reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.