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The spectacular kites on display at Gratwick Park on Saturday gave Cheryl Matthews plenty to smile about – from the gigantic purple spider that seemed about as big as a house to the elaborate manta ray that somehow slipped off the ropes that tethered it to the ground, only to be recovered soon afterward in a field down the road.

And then there was the seemingly endless flow of children – some riding in strollers, others eating hot dogs or ice cream, and hundreds of them doing their best to keep their own small kites aloft in the strong breeze coming off the Niagara River in the North Tonawanda park.

But really, what gave Matthews the biggest reason to smile was what the whole scene represented: a collective effort to provide help for veterans like her who find themselves homeless. A local group of Vietnam vets organized the event, which gave away kites in exchange for voluntary donations that will be passed along to local groups serving homeless veterans.

Matthews, who served 20 years in the Army and Air National Guard, knows all too well what it’s like to be without a place to call home.

For nearly a year, she lived out of her car. For some of that time, her then-teenage daughter lived with her, until she started college.

“It was devastating, being homeless,” she said. “We used to sleep at the Clarence truck stop. I would race my car around to warm it up and then huddle under down coats to keep warm at night.”

Matthews worked for years as a licensed practical nurse in the private sector and as a guard on the Niagara Falls Air Force Base as a member of the National Guard. After she left the service, the single mother took a job working at McDonald’s so she could be home as much as possible with her daughter. The job aggravated her rheumatoid arthritis after several years, and she had to stop working, she said.

Eight years ago, she and her daughter were evicted from their apartment in North Tonawanda. They stayed for several weeks at the Niagara Falls Air Force Base, paying their way using money from a tax return and disability checks. Eventually, they ended up living out of their car while Matthews waited for an interview for Social Security disability.

“People look down on homeless veterans,” said Matthews, now 58. “But a lot of them, when they get home, they have physical problems or they have mental problems, and they need someplace to stay.”

Matthews is among a new wave of homeless veterans, local experts say: women, many of whom have children.

About 1,760 veterans were newly homeless or at risk of being homeless in 2012, according to Celia O’Brien, chief operating officer for the Western New York Veterans Housing Coalition.

“It’s not the stereotype of homeless pushing a shopping cart,” O’Brien said. “Most are unemployed or underemployed. Many are couch-surfing. Families and females make up many of them.”

“This is an ongoing problem. It’s not getting any better,” said Jack Michel, who served as a Marine squad leader in Vietnam more than four decades ago.

He and a group from Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 in the City of Tonawanda decided to take a new approach to tackling the longstanding problem: ask people to “come fly a kite for homeless veterans” at what they hope will become an annual Memorial Day event. The Great Lakes Kite Flyers Society donated its services, providing the eye-catching, larger-than-life kites that helped draw families to the park.

Members of the veterans group on Saturday sold hot dogs and hamburgers, handed out free kites and wandered through the crowd asking for donations.

Michel said he wasn’t sure how much the event was likely to raise – he was hoping to hit the $10,000 mark, or at least enough to help get a couple of veterans established in apartments of their own. While the tally hadn’t been counted by day’s end, the group gave away more than 600 kites and ran out of 200 pounds of hot dogs by the end of the four-hour event.

What’s more, the effort left many veterans feeling they had helped create a safety net for other former service members.

“But for the grace of God, I could be homeless. I could be starving and going to food pantries,” Michel said. “Our young guys have given way too much. For them to come home and not have a place to live is not acceptable.”

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com