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Guardians Foundation to the rescue: Homeless veterans organization looks to expand into Dickinson

Press Photo by Nadya Faulx Homeless veteran Dan Main, center, talks to representatives of the non-profit Guardians Foundation outside of the Dickinson Walmart on Saturday. The Idaho-based group is in town for the weekend to raise funds and awareness for possible expansion into Dickinson.

An organization serving homeless veterans is eyeing Dickinson for its next facility as it expands its outreach in the Oil Patch.

The Coeur D’Alene, an Idaho-based Guardians Foundation, set up its first North Dakota housing unit in Williston in April, and has already provided housing and employment assistance to more than a dozen veterans in the area, program manager Michael Lucey said.

Lucey and other volunteers were camped out at Walmart Saturday to solicit donations and raise awareness of the organization’s work, which includes providing immediate shelter for homeless vets, help with living expenses and assistance with job searches.

“We’re very solution-oriented,” he said. “We’re real no-nonsense about it. These are people’s lives.”

He said veterans are given shelter in a shared house for roughly 30 days, allowing them the breathing room to look for sustainable employment, as well as a supportive environment of fellow veterans.

“It helps them find a good fit, helps them gain roots in the community,” he said. “You can’t make a good decision when you’re worried about where you’re going to live. A guy can breathe a sigh of relief.”

With shelter and food taken care of, veterans are expected to aggressively seek employment through the foundation’s partnerships with HR professionals and companies in the area. So far, Lucey said, all but one veteran to come through the group’s Williston house has found employment.

Helping those who served

Lucey, who is a Vietnam-era veteran, said he was homeless and addicted to painkillers in Phoenix for almost a decade before getting clean and moving to Spokane, Wash., where he met Guardians founder and director Michael Shaw outside of a Walmart about nine months ago.

“I could not find work anywhere,” Lucey said. “I was just about to give up when I saw Guardians.”

He’s worked with them ever since on a mostly volunteer basis, helping to prevent what he experienced from happening to a new generation of veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Shaw started the non-profit Guardians Foundation in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, about four years ago when he was still on duty in Baghdad and about to be sent home after a back injury. With few ideas of what he would do once out of Iraq, he said he decided to try to start an organization to help other veterans.

“At the time I didn’t know what it was going to be,” he said, but “when I got off the airplane in September 2011, I was ready to go.”

What began as a kind of hunting and fishing group — therapy of sorts for veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or having difficulties adjusting to civilian life — quickly changed direction when Shaw noticed a more necessary need — to serve at-risk veterans in housing and homelessness.

A 2012 Housing and Urban Development point-in-time count estimated there are almost 63,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had provided more than 58,000 Housing Choice vouchers as of September 2013, but Shaw wanted to provide more-immediate options.

He said he has opened homes in three Idaho cities — Post Falls, Coeur D’Alene and Tensed — as well as one in Spokane, but the labor markets there make it difficult for the veterans to get out into living-wage jobs on their own.

“After two years, individuals we served in shelters would be there extended periods of time,” he said. “It became frustrating.”

Oil Patch expansion

Shaw saw an opportunity to expand his services into the Oil Patch, where workers could more easily find sustainable, well-paying jobs. The number of out-of-state veterans flocking to jobs in oil and construction, with few community connections to fall back on, made the region a perfect location for the Guardians Foundation’s latest facility.

After several trips to the area and setting up some temporary housing in man camps, the Guardians Foundation leased a 6,000-square foot house in April that filled up in three days with veterans referred from the local VA office and other agencies, as well as by word-of-mouth referrals between veterans.

“It gives them an opportunity to navigate all other community services,” he said. “Food stamps, help with vet clinics, to get their library card, all those things. It’s very difficult to do when you’re living out of your car.”

Now the group is looking to expand into Dickinson.

After a recent ‘stand down’ event in Williston, bringing together various agencies and community resources to aid veterans, Guardians took note of a growing need in other communities around the Bakken.

“We were told, ‘You guys are really needed down in Dickinson,’” said Greg Blackwell, a vet and Guardians client-turned-volunteer who helped to set up the Williston house.

The fundraiser Saturday was the group’s first community event in Dickinson, but Shaw said the organization has been trying to recruit volunteers and has started talks with city officials to explore fundraising and development options.

The organization is listed as in “not good standing” with the North Dakota Secretary of State, but is still registered to receive charitable solicitations; the organization has so far relied heavily on individual donors and receives no federal funding.

Stark County is home to nearly 2,000 veterans, according to a 2013 VA expenditures report, but the exact number is most likely greater than that. Organizations like Hero 2 Hired, Job Service North Dakota and the local VA office all serve the veteran community, but Blackwell said the Guardians Foundation fills a specific niche.

“We refer to other agencies as necessary,” he said. “We’re not counselors; it’s outside of what we do. But it’s an address (for veterans) to put on applications when they’re looking for work.”

Within the first hour of setting up in front of Walmart, the group found another vet looking for exactly that: Dan Main arrived in Dickinson about three weeks ago and has been camped out around the city while he looks for work.

Aside from some odd temp jobs, the former Navy engineer hasn’t had much luck securing anything permanent. After drifting around the western part of the country for the past eight years, he said he’s ready to settle into something more permanent.

“It was fun for a while, but I’m getting a little old for that,” he said.

He heard about Guardians from a friend and decided to come by. The group started making plans to take Main up to Williston, where Shaw said he expects Main will find work by the end of the week.

“I would like to get work in the oil fields,” Main said. “I would like to retire out of it.”

Guardians are still in its early stages in the state, but Shaw said “the fact that we’re here in North Dakota and we’re expanding is the right direction.”