New Castle News

Local News

September 2, 2013

Programs help homeless veterans take back their lives

NEW CASTLE — Dion Williams can say he lived in Lawrence County.

However, his seven-month place of residence was the jail.

Before that, there was a period of drifting from place to place, sometimes staying in abandoned buildings that didn’t have electricity or running water. That was one of the low points of Williams’ life.

He was a homeless veteran who recently was diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome, addiction disorders and mental health issues.

Now, Williams, 43,  is trying to turn his life around with the help of the Butler Veterans Administration Hospital, which he said came to him in one of his darkest hours.

A cooperative program between the Butler VA Hospital homeless program and Housing and Urban Development helps find homeless veterans a place to live. HUD/VASH — Veterans Administration Supportive Housing — provides permanent housing. The VA oversees programs in a five-county area, which includes Lawrence, Butler, Mercer, Armstrong and Clarion.

The goal is to “graduate” into other permanent housing, if possible, but a veteran may stay in the HUD/VASH program forever, explained Dan Slack, coordinator of the Butler VA homeless veterans program.

Williams is thankful that he has a home and wife to return to in Youngstown now that he has completed a program through the Butler facility.

A DARK PLACE

A veteran of the Persian Gulf and Desert Storm/Desert Shield conflicts who also served with the National Guard, Williams was a demolitions expert who saw bodies being blown apart. The soldiers also were gassed, which led to Williams’ central nervous system starting to shut down, creating a deep depression. Nightmares and night tremors followed.

“There was a lot of escaping, which led to drinking and other chemical substance,” Williams said, adding he held several different jobs when he returned to the U.S., but adjusting to civilian life “was a job in itself.”

He married and had children but hit rock bottom several times. One of those was when he was shot on Sept. 15, 2001. Williams became addicted to the medicines prescribed.

“I strived to get on the right path but wasn’t able to do so.”

When his marriage ultimately failed and his ex-wife and children moved to Atlanta, Williams found himself wandering from one family member’s home to another.

“I never considered myself homeless but I learned that a period of separation — and mine was three years — means I was homeless, but not to the extreme.”

Williams, who remarried, started taking business administration classes at Youngstown State University but he wasn’t yet out of trouble. In January 2012, while sitting in a car at a friend’s house in New Castle, police — during a random search — learned Williams didn’t have a driver’s license and also found drugs in his possession.

The sentence: seven months in the county jail.

He actually considers that incarceration a blessing.

While there, he was introduced to a veteran’s advocate, Brad Shaffer, who listened to his story and explained how the VA assists veterans with addictions, mental health issues and homelessness.

Although he was not in need of the homeless program, he credits the Butler VA Hospital for diagnosing his PTSD and other issues. After his release in July 2012, he was placed in the Domiciliary program at the VA and graduated from it six months later.

During that time, he stayed in his own apartment at the Butler VA in a building that houses 10 men.

“It helped integrate me back to a normal life,” Williams said, adding he also received support specialist certification.

And in August, he returned to YSU — this time to study social work.

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