YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There were 1,707 homeless veterans in Ohio and Pennsylvania during the last census – a number that Patty Summers says shouldn’t be above zero.
“There should not be a veteran who is homeless. Homeless and veterans should not even be linked together,” Summers, president and founder of Youngstown Blue Coats, says.
Youngstown Blue Coats is a nonprofit organization that supplies winter clothing to people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless across 11 counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its philosophy is simple: In America, no one should freeze to death.
In 2021, the Youngstown Blue Coats served over 693 veterans, 1,229 men, 663 women and 173 children. Of that, 114 people were unsheltered. One of every five individuals who lacks shelter whom the organization serves is a veteran.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 40,056 veterans nationwide are homeless on any given night. The Census Bureau reported that 37,252 veterans experienced homelessness in January 2020, but that number could be higher, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The population of homeless veterans in the Mahoning Valley is greater than what is widely perceived, Summers says. The organization keeps track of demographic data by county, including gender.
“There is definitely a larger [population] than I was aware of. And I know that there’s still people we haven’t even reached yet,” Summers says. “We’re trying to fix that by working with agencies.”
Youngstown Blue Coats distributes coats, hats, boots, socks and gloves as well as tents, ground mats, sleeping bags, blankets and tarps as needed.
“We completely cover them in our wear. From head to toe, giving them new warm socks, new warm boots, just covering their bodies so that they can survive,” Summers says.
Summers founded Youngstown Blue Coats in 2017. She ran her first coat drive in 2012 with help from Sub Zero Mission, an organization based in Painesville that also provides winter supplies to individuals who experience homelessness.
The director of Sub Zero Mission suggested that Summers start her own organization.
“I didn’t really think that I was going to be able to do this. But five years later here I am. We’ve grown from just me doing it out of my house to now having a team. I have a bus. We have a delivery system. I have an office. So it’s grown quite a bit,” Summers says. “Our first year we served 10 people and last year we served close to 2,500.”
Youngstown Blue Coats puts a focus on helping homeless veterans. The focus, Summers says, stems from the trouble she has with how the government treats veterans.
“It really gets under my skin that we have homeless veterans or veterans who are not being taken care of,” she says. “These guys served their time. They went and served in wars. I don’t understand why the government doesn’t take care of them more.”
Volunteer Roseann Panning became involved with the organization four years ago. Her husband is a Vietnam War veteran and she felt called to help others like him – especially those who have struggled to readjust to civilian life.
Her husband, she says, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after his service.
Panning recalls her husband being spit on while wearing his uniform in the San Francisco airport. She shared that story with another Vietnam veteran who told her about how poorly he was treated after returning home.
“Just listening to somebody else say, ‘I know what you’re going through’ changed his whole attitude. They just want you to listen. And so many times, people are in such a hurry that they don’t want to take time,” Panning says.
Volunteers with Youngstown Blue Coats make a point to take the time to form a connection with those they serve. Engaging in conversation with a person is important for gathering data. It also “makes them feel like a person,” Summers says.
Local organizations, such as Youngstown Blue Coats, can play a valuable role in data collection for unhoused individuals, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
In a recent report, the coalition stated that the U.S. Census Bureau’s “minimal efforts” to count the homeless population creates immediate, concrete political and financial effects as well as making the population feel further estranged from society.
The coalition recommends the Census Bureau should increase engagement and collaborate with community partners, service providers and advocates for the homeless population to improve efforts to enumerate the unhoused. A more accurate count can improve efforts to offer aid to the population.
The Youngstown Blue Coats distributes supplies to veterans throughout the month of November in honor of Veterans Day. The volunteers board their bus, named after World War II hero Alexander Luke, with warm items and go to either specific locations or they traipse through the woods and under bridges to find those in need.
The volunteers also receive guidance from local agencies, such as the Help Network, Summers says.
Collaborating with the local agencies gives the organization further resources to give those they serve.
“If we know something that’s going on is immediate and a danger for them, we can contact somebody to come and get this person,” Summers says. “By having the guides, it’s made a tremendous difference for us.”
The Youngstown Blue Coats cover Trumbull, Mahoning, Columbiana, Portage, Stark and Summit counties in Ohio and Mercer, Lawrence, Butler, Beaver, Allegheny and Washington counties in Pennsylvania. The nonprofit works with 56 agencies and several local schools.
The organization relies on monetary and item donations to fund its work.
Summers says its members often buy new items, such as boots and socks, so they can provide quality and durable items to those in need. She recalls searching for sales on winter boots in the summertime and says online shopping has become quite the hobby for her and volunteer Panning.
The organization is about to launch a campaign to raise funds to build a new location. The building on Youngstown-Hubbard Road in Hubbard Township has reached capacity, Summers says. She hopes to raise $280,000 for a new building with a bus bay, a designated drop-off area, and plenty of storage space for donations.
“We are really thrilled about being able to reach out to more veterans, more men and women, and to take care of them,” Summers says.
Running the organization is a year-round endeavor and Summers says she’s fueled by her passion for the cause.
“We’re here because we have a passion to do this. And if you don’t have that passion, you’re not going to continue to do it. And that’s where the difference comes in. You have to want to help people,” she says.
Panning says she considers herself blessed to be able to participate as a volunteer for what she describes as a mission. “Doing this has blessed me over and over and over again,” she says. “This is not a business. [She pauses briefly for effect.] It’s a mission.”
To learn more about the Youngstown Blue Coats, to donate to its build campaign or to help unhoused and at-risk individuals stay warm this winter, click here.