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.
IDENTIFICATION AND OUTREACH
When Slack took over the program 10 years ago, he made a conscious effort to identify and reach out to the homeless veterans in the area.
The mindset was — there weren’t any.
Slack soon discovered that wasn’t the case.
In fact, he made it a point to get out there and search.
And he found them by looking under bridges, around bushes, in the woods, near railroad tracks and in any remote areas.
The numbers surprised him.
“I thought there would be a few, but the more we looked, the more we found. On the surface, it appears not to be many, but finding out where they were was a start.”
Homeless veterans are more visible in cities but harder to locate in rural areas, Slack acknowledged.
“They are harder to identify when they are not sleeping in the streets.”
Once identifications are made, the Butler VA coordinates with various agencies including Catholic Charities, Lawrence County Community Action, the local veteran’s office, the City Rescue Mission and Patches Place.
Education and community outreach is essential, he said.
“It took a long time to research and develop a rapport with agencies, but the ultimate goal is to get the veterans to the VA for medical care, and mental health and substance abuse evaluation, Slack confirmed.
“As the numbers started growing, there was more attention paid to the homeless veterans program. This is happening in every state.”
Slack noted that there are now more younger veterans who are homeless — those who returned from the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and many who have post traumatic stress disorder or brain trauma.
“Some have burned their bridges with their family, may not be able to keep a job and the next thing you know, they are homeless and in the woods.”
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Williams is very aware how close he came to losing everything in his life and was reluctant at first to ask for any help from anyone.
Now, his goal is to help others, and he credits the Butler VA as being a fantastic recovery facility.
“The things they are doing are changing lives,” he pointed out. “Recovery is possible. Looking back, I thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel. But I’m proof there is. Bad things had to happen before good things could happen, and the future holds lots of promise.”
“Everybody has a different story,” Slack said. “Many get out of the military and something happens when they try to adapt to civilian life.”
The Obama administration declared there would be an end to homelessness in veterans by 2015, so agencies have been given more resources, he continued.
The partnership with community agencies is a saving grace.
There is a contract housing program, which offers temporary housing for 60 to 90 days. Those veterans go to Tomorrow’s Hope, a facility in Coalport, Pa., where multiple programs are available.
In order to work on permanent housing, the next step is transitional housing, a two-year program based at Mechlyn Shakley Veterans Center in Armstrong County.
The permanent housing is the HUD/VASH program, and Lawrence County has 25 vouchers for those spots.
“Housing first is what we stress,” Slack said. “If we see a homeless vet in the woods in Lawrence County, our job is to get them into permanent housing and then address the issues that made them homeless. Assistance will be provided.”
Multiple veterans have been helped in the county, he noted, adding one veteran lived in a tent for many years.
“We visit these places regularly and check for veterans.”
A veteran can opt to leave the HUD/VASH program at any time and locate his own apartment or house, Slack said.
“Landlords know the HUD/VASH program and they are more than happy to take these veterans.”
Each veteran helped also has a case manager to help with whatever needs are warranted.
Many veterans are just a step or two away from being homeless.
“We’re all living on the edge of a glass,” Slack said. “One little slip or fall, we’re in that glass.
NEW CASTLE —
Dion Williams can say he lived in Lawrence County.
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