Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Sheltering Our Veterens

Tom Mouhelis ’71 is executive director of the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans in Wheaton. A retired Air Force major, Mouhelis says his job is all about 'people’s lives and their hopes for the future.' In his own words, here is his story.

Our whole mission is about veterans helping veterans. We’re giving people the chance to make something of their lives again. We work with guys dealing with post-traumatic stress or substance-abuse issues. We give them shelter and food and help them search for a job, and we insist that they stay clean and sober. It’s a little bit of tough love, but what we try to do is give them a chance to get back to society. We help them make something of their lives again.

This job really is personal for me. I spent thirty years in the Air Force, most of it in the Reserves. Thanks to Elmhurst, I was able to realize one of my goals in life, which was to become a commissioned officer in the Air Force. I came to Elmhurst after I returned from active duty. I went to school while I was working full time and it was difficult, but I knew I needed to get my bachelor’s degree to become a commissioned officer. Elmhurst changed my life. 

I had worked mainly in sales and marketing before this. The difference between those jobs and this one is like night and day. In sales you can walk away. Here you’re on call all the time. You’re dealing with people’s lives and their hopes for the future.

We’re the only homeless shelter in DuPage County, a county of about a million people. Right now our capacity is five men. We’re going to expand to accommodate fifteen people—eleven men and four women. On any given night in Northern Illinois you’ve got 18,000 to 20,000 homeless veterans, and of that number, 8 or 9 percent are female.

We’ve had a very positive response from the community. That’s partly because we’ve been phenomenal neighbors. We’ve never had a single police call to the house, which is rare for a transitional home like ours. We have zero tolerance for alcohol and drugs. We do testing. If anyone turns up positive, they’ve got a few hours and then they’re gone. We just can’t jeopardize the integrity of the program.

Most people have a perception of what transitional housing is, and once they come in here, they’re blown away, because it really is a house. It’s not a stark, impersonal barracks or anything like that. We have to make it more of a home. The guys have their chores; they do their own cooking and their own cleaning. They’ve got to take responsibility for their actions.

A lot of my job is about sharing our message with the community, being an advocate for veteran’s affairs. Running the day-to-day operation is part of it, too. We’re staffed twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If there’s a resident here, there will be a house manager here or I’ll be here.

Fund raising is a critical priority because our operation expenditures are higher than a lot of other charities, because they can close shop at five in the afternoon and leave. We can’t.

It’s great to see someone turn it around. We had one guy who left here about two months ago and now he’s got a job with a local park district and we helped him get a good deal on an apartment from a fellow veteran. It’s working out great for him. The successes really make you feel good.

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