A different kind of parade will mark Veterans Day this year. More than 50 blocks away from Birmingham’s traditional downtown procession, onlookers will see a steady stream of carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other craftsmen marching into and out of 5704 First Avenue North. Friday, with the assistance of Home Depot, an effort coordinated by the local nonprofit group Three Hots and A Cot will refurbish the Saint Benedict Veterans Center, to help continue giving some of those who have served their country something they might not otherwise have: a roof over their heads.
J.D. Simpson is the top kick of Three Hots and A Cot. When you meet this remarkable man, and I hope you do someday, note his utter sincerity and abject humility, but marvel at the focus he brings to a daunting task. Simpson and his volunteer force are walking point on a mission to help homeless vets get off the streets and back into the world.
The impetus for this Navy veteran was simple enough. Simpson served between 1977-1987, and saw enough of the world to know he wasn’t too interested in coming back home to Birmingham. Working in the private sector, he and his wife were in the Washington area in January 2009, when they decided, for the history of it, to attend the Obama inauguration.
As he stood near the Washington Monument watching the festivities, Simpson was appalled to see homeless veterans sleeping on benches near the World War II Memorial. The next day he called the Veterans Administration to find out which bureau should be helping these people, and was informed that only nonprofit agencies were available to aid them. He thought to himself that if he only had the time, he’d form one for that purpose.
That Friday, the company for which he was working bankrupted. “Suddenly,” he said, “I had all the time in the world I needed.” He, his wife and a friend formed Three Hots and a Cot, a 501c3 nonprofit agency, the very next day.
The plan was to help veterans, but where? After prayerful consideration, Simpson called the VA again, this time to ask which part of the country needed the most help immediately. This time he was stunned to be told it was Birmingham, Ala. “Where’s your second choice?” he asked.
As many as 200,000 American veterans are homeless, and perhaps as many as 1,000 dwell here in Birmingham. Ours was one of the largest cities in the country without available resources in place specifically to help homeless vets, so in early 2010, Simpson answered a new call to duty, packed up his family and returned to his birthplace.
Besides connecting with the local VA and the Greater Birmingham Ministries, invaluable aids for such a startup, Simpson also reconnected with his roots. When he started asking around for an available space to turn into a veterans’ center, he was told he could rent the unused Interfaith Hospitality House on First Avenue in Woodlawn for the nominal sum of a dollar. It was located next to Grace Episcopal Church, where his mother, Deanna Simpson, had founded the Grace Community Soup Kitchen in 1977. “She’s my biggest inspiration for doing this,” Simpson says.
He recruited a small group of volunteers, supporters and donors to renovate the house, which opened in June 2010, providing a home for 12 vets. However, his plan was not to build just another homeless shelter. “I don’t want to create the wheel,” Simpson said. He was thinking about a hub.
Spokes are already in place. There is considerable assistance available for veterans, but they don’t always know how to obtain it. (Fewer than 25 percent of them sign up with VA after they leave the service.) “How can I help them get what they need?” Simpson asked. “I don’t need to teach them job skills, I need to know where they can go get teaching.” Thus, the Saint Benedict Center (and a second house, the Clay Veterans Center in Center Point, which opened last December) was conceived as less a shelter than as a resource center, a gateway to independence for homeless vets.
Operating on the skinniest of budgets and the resourcefulness of its staff and board of directors (all serving for no wages), Three Hots and a Cot has shown positive results in less that a year and a half. There have been 90 vets in residence and about 79 percent have able to find jobs and permanent housing, to reconcile with their families or are still in the program. Hundreds more have been helped without needing to be in the program. The wheel is starting to turn.
Robert Thomas and a crew from Home Depot arrive Friday to renovate the exterior of the Saint Benedict center, upgrade the central air and redo the kitchen and bathrooms, all in one day. It is a massive gift. That doesn’t mean Three Hots and a Cot couldn’t use a Veterans Day gift from you.
You could send a few tax-deductible dollars to the cause, and that would be appreciated. Three Hots and a Cot has a monthly budget pushing $11,000, and while that’s chump change in a town that allocates nearly $2 million a year to run a zoo, it’s still a challenge to meet in these times.
If you’re a little short of funds yourself, consider donating food. The “Three Hots” in the title refers to the meals served at the veterans centers: 72 daily, 504 weekly, 26, 280 annually. If you can help out with the perishable items — meat, eggs, dairy, fresh produce — that’d make a big difference. Or maybe you can volunteer to help. The website cotsforvets.org can tell you how.
“There are vets on the streets and bills to pay at our houses,” J.D. Simpson says. “Just got to figure out how to narrow both those numbers down.”
Visit www.cotsforvets.org for information on volunteer opportunities at Three Hots and a Cot.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.