Thresholds: 2010-2011

A native of rural Sunflower County, Miss., Dempsey Spruell set out to explore the world by joining the United States Air Force. For four years, the young enlisted airman spent much of his time in the service at Shepard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. Having served his country for four years, he received an honorable discharge and hoped to enter civilian life with the skills and confidence he had gained in the Air Force.

But life outside of the military would be anything but routine. Dempsey found himself bouncing from locale to locale, and eventually came to Chicago. The life of three squares a day, pressed uniforms, shined boots and a sense of honor were gone.

Dempsey eventually ended up homeless – like so many other veterans before him. Disengaged from the community and off the system grid, Dempsey’s new home was not a comfortable warm barracks or apartment. His home became the crushing and cold cement of Lower Wacker Drive.

Even though he had family in the area, his mental illness and substance abuse had taken his pride. He said he couldn’t face the brother and sisters in the shape he was in.

But Dempsey recently got a fresh start and a “hand up” from the Thresholds Veterans Project. With the help of a grant from the Washington Square Health Foundation, the program was initiated in 2010 to address the complex needs of veterans with mental health issues. This program became Dempsey’s safe haven – a port in an unending storm.

Within weeks, Dempsey was getting regular visits from a community support specialist, access to therapeutic care, and – finally – a roof over his head that wasn’t the underside of a bridge.

Today, thanks to the dedication and hard work of the Thresholds Veterans Project, Dempsey has a new studio apartment. A comfortable bed. A warm respite away from the bone-numbing chill of the Chicago winter. He has a brighter future. He is finding recovery.

The smile on his face is a sure sign he is back on his way to the same honor he felt as a young airman. But it is probably the few simple words he told us that make his story so poignant.

“I have a home. I enjoy bein’ inside.”

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