HINES, Ill. (WLS) -- We have all seen homeless veterans, maybe downtown or along an expressway. Now you can help that veteran, whether they're a stranger or someone you know, by calling a special Hines VA Hospital Hotline.
The Hines Homeless Outreach Hotline is 708-202-4961. You can call if you're the veteran, or know a veteran who is homeless or at risk of being homeless and needs help, according to Hines VA officials.
"The anonymity of being able to just call and say, 'This is going on with me, I need help.' And then we come to you," explained Joseph Ader, Chief of Social Work Department at Hines VA Hospital.
Once the hotline call is made, Hines VA officials say the goal is to reach the veteran within 24 hours no matter where they are located. They can be at a friend's home, or maybe living in a tent or their vehicle.
"You kind of have to approach it and meet them where they are at," said Mark Marroquin, a Hines Outreach Social Worker who often makes the first contact. "If they are not ready to address it, we want to be the helping hand, that we are still here, even if you are not ready."
About a month ago, Marroquin was the first VA social worker to help Bianca Tolbert, an Army veteran who did a one-year tour in Iraq in 2007.
Tolbert said past trauma had resurfaced from her service in Iraq. During that tour, she said a higher-ranking member assaulted her.
"I ended up getting discharged because I ended up encountering MST, military sexual trauma," Tolbert said. "And I ended up leaving. From there, I guess it's where it all started."
Tolbert returned home to Chicago, and by 2019, had three sons. In November 2019, her oldest son Duke, 15 at the time, died by suicide. Duke was only 1-year-old when she was serving in Iraq.
"In 2019, my son died. COVID hit a couple months after that," she said. "When my son died, I'm the one who found him."
Bianca said her depression recently hit rock bottom.
"I was not getting out of bed. I was not showering. I was not taking care of my kids," she said.
"What if I don't get out of bed?" she recalled thinking. "If I can't get up, I can't work, I can't make a living, what if I don't get out of bed, and I just get stuck in my depression? I will be homeless."
A month ago, she called the Hines Homeless Outreach Hotline.
"I didn't feel embarrassed, or intimidated by a long process of you have to this, or you have to do that. I felt I was in the right place at the right time," Tolbert said.
"That number is a great number to just give to a veteran, even if they are not confident enough to call. I've seen people make that call on behalf of the veteran," Marroquin said.
Hines VA officials said they have more than 20 mental health treatment programs available.
In 2021 approximately 57,000 veterans received healthcare at Hines VA and our six community based clinics. Of that 57,000, approximately 20,000 were also enrolled in mental care, and approximately 2,200 were receiving care from the Hines homeless programs, Ader said.
Hines VA officials report the number of homeless veterans is decreasing when you compare 2021 to 2011.
"The reason we have gotten it down is because of all these initiatives within VA to rapidly house veterans, regardless of sobriety, regardless of mental health status," Ader said.
Right now, Bianca and her family are in housing, and with treatment she's improving.
"I can actually be Bianca again. It feels good to actually to be able to tap into the old me, and be myself, and be the mom I want to be," Tolbert said. "Despite everything, I do have a great life."
Again, the Homeless Outreach Hotline is 708-202-4961