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He was a Vietnam War veteran and was awarded a Purple Heart. He became friends with Emily Cornelius and her mother, Karen, five years ago. Emily was in the 8th grade at the time. Years later in April 2018, she accompanied him on an Honor Flight to Washington, DC. He was 70 years old.
Five years earlier when he met Emily, he was homeless. He passed away last Saturday, August 11 and left behind a sister and a son.
William “Mr. Willie” Dread was living in a homeless camp in Lakeland, FL called “The Chinese Jungle” when Emily discovered him. Over time she and her mother brought him food and clothing and other care packages. Eventually, she found him a place to live in Crystal Court apartments in Lakeland. Mr. Dread talked about this mother and daughter pair before he left on his Honor Flight, saying “I love them both. She [Emily] is just a great young lady.”
Emily and her mother’s generosity helped me better understand the tragic story of homeless veterans. Mr. Dread’s journey to homelessness was not disclosed in the research I did, but it’s not unlikely that he experienced one or more of the following conditions on leaving the service:
In addition to the complex set of factors influencing all homelessness – extreme shortage of affordable housing, livable income and access to health care – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse, which are compounded by a lack of family and social support networks. Additionally, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.
The most successful programs to help homeless veterans seem to be VA programs collaborating with community services:
VA, using its own resources or in partnerships with others, has secured nearly 15,000 residential rehabilitative and transitional beds and more than 30,000 permanent beds for homeless veterans throughout the nation. These partnerships are credited with reducing the number of homeless veterans by 70% since 2005.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is working hard to serve this population:
According to the State of Veteran Homelessness 2017, veteran homelessness decreased by 17 percent between 2015 and 2016. As a result of VA homeless programs and the utilization of HUD’s targeted housing vouchers, 123,000 Veterans and their family members were permanently housed or prevented from becoming homeless in Calendar Year 2016. Since 2008, more than 87,000 HUD housing vouchers have been awarded through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, which pairs case management and supportive services to help veterans sustain housing stability and recover from physical and mental challenges.
Federal agencies, federal funding, housing organizations, state and local entities and government officials at all levels, non-profit organizations, and community groups are all working together to help our veterans.
Another important aspect of helping veterans is intervening before they become homeless. There are several organizations that help veterans make the adjustment to civilian life. They help them adjust to returning to their families and their roles; teach them how to look for a job; help them establish daily routines; and learn to adjust to a workforce that may focus on competition rather than teamwork. These kinds of organizations can be extremely helpful in adapting one’s life to the civilian world. These activities and services may only be a dent in helping our returning veterans, but I’m hopeful that they will increase over time.
Perhaps the day will come when people like William Dread will no longer fall through the cracks.