by Elsie Walker
Most people take having clean water to drink for granted. They just turn on a faucet in their homes and out comes the water. However, what if a person is homeless? Where does he or she get water? Founder and Director of Operation Chillout, Ray Chimileski, recalled that a homeless veteran, who had sepsis, died while waiting for an operation because he took his medication with polluted river water. Chimileski noted, that from the organization’s own experience and information from the New Jersey Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, “one in every five homeless people is a veteran”.
In addition to the need for water, there are also the problems of staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter, how does one do that when he or she is living on the streets?
Helping solve the problems of homelessness and helping homeless veterans receive the services they qualify for are the two focuses of Operation Chillout. Operation Chillout is New Jersey’s oldest all volunteer mobile outreach for veterans and homeless men and women. Started in 2000, its membership is made up of both veterans and civilians. It serves all of New Jersey, northeast Pennsylvania, and coastal Rhode Island. Chimileski shared that Operation Chillout was “selected to be the statewide special project 2020-2021 of the New Jersey Federation of Women’s Clubs.” (The New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs is the largest volunteer women’s service organization in the state and a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.)
Operating out of Long Valley, just one of the many ways Operation Chillout helps is through giving out certain items during the summer and winter; in the summer, those items are caps, t-shirts, and bottled water. Since veterans congregate where other homeless do, Chillout gives the items to non-veterans as well. In the past, the supplies it shared were donations of items received from drives done by groups or from individuals. The summer collection is done Memorial Day – Labor Day. However, this year, because of COVID19, Operation Chillout can’t take donations of physical items, but is taking monetary donations to buy the summer items. People can donate through its website at www.operationchillout.org/.
Chimileski shared that Operation Chillout goes to where the homeless are to distribute items (soup kitchens, shelters, etc.) Seeing a homeless veteran, a member of Operation Chillout will give this “peace offering”; the summer or winter items, and the organization’s card. Chimileski calls the items “a peace offering” because homeless veterans may have had bad experiences in the past in trying to get the services they need; they may have become frustrated and given up. They may be wary of help. Operation Chillout wants these homeless veterans to know that it will be their advocate in helping to get them the services for which they qualify and also help them with other needs.
Chimileski noted that this year’s distribution of items will be different due to COVID19 restrictions. Some shelters are closed. Also, Operation Chillout won’t be allowed to put up its table and speak one-on -one with homeless veterans. Operation Chillout will be delivering the items it usually gives out (and its cards for homeless veterans) to the organizations to distribute, like the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark), soup kitchens, etc. Operation Chillout will also go to other places where the homeless are known to be.
Chimileski noted that COVID-19 restrictions have affected the organization in another way, too. Operation Chillout has cancelled its annual August Vet Fest fundraiser which benefits the organization’s Rapid Response Team Hotline and veterans rescue housing costs. “Our Rapid Response Team runs 24/7/365. We receive calls daily at our automated hotline (609-619-0861) from or about homeless veterans. Referrals come from many sources: individuals, agencies, first responders, family members and often the VA itself. We provide no cost transportation and brief motel stays and whatever incidental items are needed to rescue the veteran from the homeless crisis. While secure and safe, we arrange or provide access to longer term housing solutions. In 2019, we rescued an average of one new homeless veteran per day – over 300 individuals.”
Chimileski said that those who would like to support those efforts can visit the Operation Chillout website to donate to its veterans’ outreach effort. The donation link is found at the bottom of this page: www.operationchillout.org/who-we-are/.