WHITING — On a recent afternoon, an energetic Steve Gniadek gave a tour of his modest, one-bedroom apartment in Whiting, rattling off “all the people” he wants to thank — for the couch, the bedroom set, kitchen appliances, the wall art.
And, most of all, the roof over his head.
“I would not be where I’m at, doing as good as I am, without the help of these people. They really care. I have never felt the compassion and the gratitude for the things that I’ve been through like I do today. I could never throw that away. I got to pay it forward,” he said.
Gniadek said he has the North Township Trustee's Office in East Chicago, the American Veterans Collection, American Red Cross, and Habitat for Humanity, along with countless people — some of whom he's never met — to thank for getting him back on his feet.
‘I felt ashamed’
In August, Gniadek found himself in a desperate situation: He was behind on his bills and unable to pay rent, so he left his apartment on 119th Street — fearing eviction.
And just like that, the 56-year-old Army veteran, who suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, became a harrowing statistic: Homeless and couchsurfing during the second half of 2017 and afraid to seek help.
State officials estimated in 2016 that 660 homeless veterans were living in Indiana at the time.
“I felt ashamed. I felt guilt. I was mad at myself,” Gniadek said.
Gniadek served two tours between 1979 and 1985 — once as part of a unit stationed near the Korean demilitarized zone, or DMZ, and again during the United States' invasion of Grenada in the final years of the Cold War.
When enough was enough, he finally made a phone call to Jim Chancellor — a veterans’ advocate — that changed his life.
“There’s veterans out there, they are living out in tents, and it’s them against the world. And I know a lot of them, they don’t have the courage to step up or they don’t know what to do, where to get help. They don’t have resources,” Gniadek said. “Jim was my resource advocate.”
‘People who really care’
Gniadek said he was at the VA Center in Crown Point at the end of last year when someone suggested he reach out to Chancellor, a Vietnam war veteran with the Disabled American Veterans and an advocate through his nonprofit, American Veterans Collection Inc.
Chancellor said he turned around and contacted North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan, whose office recently launched a new veterans support program that utilizes a local network of resources. Mrvan also is in the process of opening new veterans housing in East Chicago.
“Restore teams,” as Mrvan calls them, bring together township staff, nonprofits and other agencies in an effort to assist veterans with PTSD, homelessness, substance abuse, legal issues and education.
“It’s a complete holistic approach,” he said.
Chancellor said Mrvan’s team was able to financially help Gniadek land a new apartment and the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity teamed up to provide him furnishings, he said.
“There are two types of people: Those who are trying to work the system. They don’t want to change anything,” Chancellor said. “And then there are other people who really care, who want to change their lives. Steve falls in that category.”
Virginia Carter, chief deputy in the North Township Trustee's Office, said it's "wonderful" to see Gniadek happy and "on his way to being self-sufficient."
"I told him to never give up, we’re here for you. We’re not here to just help somebody one time, but to walk with them until they are able to walk alone," she said.
‘I lost my livelihood’
Losing his commercial driver's license after he crashed his semi in 2008 was the first domino of unfortunate events, Gniadek said.
His boss, who allowed the insurance to lapse, filed for bankruptcy after the wreck, Gniadek said.
“When he did that to protect himself, the accident fell on me, the driver,” he said. “I lost my livelihood, my license, and he kept his half-million dollar house.”
It’s taken more than a decade, but Gniadek said he now has a chance to finally get his CDL license back, thanks to Rebecca Wyatt, an attorney in Mrvan’s veterans support network.
Without a driver’s license, Gniadek says he pays anywhere from $50 to $75 a week for a ride service to get to his job at Ray's Roofing. He pays more if he has doctor’s appointments at the VA or errands to run.
“I love my job right now,” Gniadek said. “But I also want to get my CDL license back.”
Kristin Marlow-Kellemen, executive director for the American Red Cross in Northwest Indiana, said Gniadek’s case is a perfect example of nonprofits “working together.”
“At the end of the day, he’s now stable, employed. He has a place to live. He served his country and now we’re serving him,” Marlow-Kellemen said.
'You're not alone'
Gniadek is just one example of how Mrvan wants to tackle the homeless veteran population in Northwest Indiana.
His office is in the process of rehabbing a single-family home in the city’s Harbor section. The goal is to have the East Chicago Housing Authority provide the housing, while Mrvan's office assists the veterans with sustainable employment, credit counseling and mental health services.
Mrvan said the housing is just one prong to his office’s holistic approach, adding, “The main message I want out there is, ‘You’re not alone and your community is here to support you.’ ”