Resident Spotlight: Blessings at Freedom's Path Hines

Willie Hoyle.jpg

“What’s it like to spend 30 months in jail? Well,” says Willie Hoyle, “that’ll change anybody’s mind if you want your mind changed.”

Willie joined the Marines right out of high school, and though he believes military life helped him grow up and “made a man” out of him, he struggled with a sense of boredom and despair when he left the service. In between periods of homelessness and unemployment, he spent decades working odd jobs, mainly in warehouses. And he turned to alcohol.

Marrying his wife brought a brief period of happiness, but the year his wife died, Willie lost any control he’d had over the drinking. He quickly found himself homeless again.

He had been living on the streets for about three years when he was arrested. “Someone tried to rob me, and I fought back,” Willie says. In jail, he couldn’t drink or smoke, and being sober helped him. “It made me see things I needed to see,” he says. “And I passed the blessing on. I talked with other guys there. God helped me to help other people.”

After he got out of jail, Willie moved into a sober living facility and then connected with a shelter in Chicago. When a woman with Volunteers of America told him about Freedom’s Path at Hines, he filled out the application right away.

Now, at 62 years old, the majority of Willie’s time is spent on schoolwork. He’s a student at Triton College, about 20 minutes away from Freedom’s Path at Hines. When he graduates, he hopes to work as an addiction counselor. “People are more likely to listen to someone who’s been through it,” Willie says. He already enjoys working with people who are in recovery at the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings right at the property. “I always want to have my hand out to help someone because God’s taking care of me.”

After a heart attack last year, Willie visits his cardiologist regularly at the VA Hospital and likes that it’s so close by. He uses the complex’s gym to walk on the treadmill and keep his heart in shape. And back in his unit, he likes to read the Bible and watch old black and white movies in his living room.

His peaceful life at Freedom’s Path is a long way from the anguish of alcoholism and homelessness. “This apartment has given me stability,” he says. “And my wife is buried right down the street. Talk about a blessing.”

Resident Profile: A Better Life for Retired Veteran at Freedom’s Path Vancouver

Peace and quiet in a safe space. That’s what Tom Morris was looking for when he moved into Freedom’s Path Vancouver just about a year ago.

As the primary caregiver for his elderly mother, Morris had been living in her home a little less than a mile from the VA campus. But several family members with substance abuse issues were in and out of the house, creating a disturbing, unsafe environment. When his adult daughter died of a drug overdose at the house, he put in an application for what would become Freedom’s Path Vancouver, a property specifically for Veterans.

Morris was 19 years old, working on a dairy farm, when he was drafted in 1968. He did his basic training in California and was about to be shipped out to Vietnam when his younger brother was killed in the line of duty. Instead of heading oversees, he was sent home for his brother’s funeral and then stationed in Germany. He re-enlisted after becoming a Sergeant.

After four and a half years in the Army, Morris went back to farming and ended up planting trees in the mountains of Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington, and California. He loved the job, but it was hard on his body. In his early 30s, he started doing home construction and remodeling for a general contractor who taught him from the ground up, something he’s now shared with his son, who continues in the same line of work.

At 65, Morris had a heart attack and fell off the roof he was working on. After another injury, the doctor told him he couldn’t go back to work. He’s retired but he doesn’t like “just sitting around.” Morris still heads to his 86-year-old mother’s house every morning to help her with her medication and take care of the bills. He enjoys cooking and likes to make one of her favorite meals—homemade chili. On the weekends, he travels to see his grandchildren. He has seven and is about to become a great grandfather.

Even with his military pension, he still struggles to make ends meet. A grocery stipend from the Clark County Veterans Assistance helps cover his food costs, and over the years, he has learned how to cook on a budget.

But he doesn’t have to worry about where he sleeps at night. At Freedom’s Path Vancouver, Morris has the safe environment he was looking for. He mostly keeps to himself, but he likes talking with his VA caseworker and living with other Veterans. “They’ve been in the same place I’ve been, so they pretty much know what it’s like.” 

Secretary of HUD Visits Freedom’s Path at Chillicothe

Ben Carson, the former presidential candidate and recently-appointed Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made a visit to Chillicothe, Ohio last week to learn about the Freedom’s Path Veterans housing complex and talk with Veterans and advocates.

After a tour of the property that included a walk-through of one of the units, Carson sat down with several residents, along with HUD officials and senior staff from the local VA Medical Center. The Secretary spoke about the need for public-private partnerships like those responsible for properties like Freedom’s Path at Chillicothe, where VA Medical Center land is leased to Communities for Veterans, a private corporation, to build properties that will house homeless and housing-insecure Veterans.

Craig Taylor, President of Solutions for Veterans, a non-profit partner with Communities for Veterans, spoke to the assembled crowd about the need for additional tax credits to incentivize the creation of Veterans-only housing. With a program like the Gulf Opportunity Zones started after Hurricane Katrina, Taylor said, “we could solve the problem of Veteran homelessness in one fell swoop.” He acknowledged that the cost of such a program would be higher than Congress is likely to appropriate at this time.

Even so, for Taylor, the Secretary’s visit “speaks volumes about the low-key, no-nonsense business approach that he’s taking – not just toward Veterans issues but toward homelessness and affordable housing generally in the United States. He’s knowledgeable, attentive and believes deeply in the ability of the American people and the economy to deal with the current situation. He’ll bring that focus and intensity to HUD to move those values forward.”

Carson’s visit to the Chillicothe property is particularly important because, Taylor notes, “in a rural environment, one of the things we have to do to house homeless Veterans is spread the word, and the Secretary’s visit gave us a broader platform to do that with the goal of filling the final units. Freedom’s Path at Chillicothe is a wonderful community. Once more Veterans know about it, they’ll be attracted to the pastoral environment and the quality housing.”

Solutions for Veterans provides stabilization services—like access to free linens, toiletries, cookware, and home furnishings for those who are coming to the property without the items that are needed to build a new life at a Freedom’s Path property.

Resident Spotlight: WWII Veteran Vernon “Possum” Johnston

WWII Veteran Vernon Johnson

“I was on Okinawa when they finished the war,” says World War II Veteran Vernon “Possum” Johnston. “We went through that 200 mile-an-hour typhoon that come through there. Wasn’t nothing left but the slabs of the hut we was in. Blew away all the food. We had nothing to eat for 2 days. Tents were all blown out into Butler Bay.” The memory is still clear for Johnston—called Possum by all who know him.  He was 20 years old when the war ended. Now, 74 years later, his living arrangements are significantly more secure.

He was one of around 18 individuals to move into Freedom’s Path at Kerrville when the property opened in December 2016, and Possum likes the close proximity to his previous home in Harper, Texas—about a half hour away. He still enjoys driving himself over to visit old friends, who invite him out for supper and card games.

Possum was born out in the country near Bayton, TX, where his father and grandfather both had rice farms. After the war, he came home, bought a combine, and farmed rice for two years. Eventually, after a stint running a service station, he went to work for Lubrizol Corporation, where he worked his way up the ladder over 31 years, retiring as a superintendent over 5 departments.

Nowadays, Possum is glad to be in a quality housing unit close to a hospital and appreciates the staff at Freedom's Path. He enjoys a good fish fry or a barbecue, watching golf and the news, and listening to music.  “I danced all my life,” he says. Out in California before he went oversees, he went to one of the big dance halls, but he was too young to get anything at the bar. So he took a half pint of whiskey and hid it under a couch. When he went back, there was a girl sitting on the couch. “You’re sitting on my whiskey,” he told her and then asked her to dance. She replied that she liked country music better. Possum didn’t let that stop him. He took her hand and brought her to another dance around the corner that played country. A couple at a nearby table asked them to come over and sit—they turned out to be the movie star John Payne and his date, who gave them an autographed photo.

After he got out of the service, Possum and his dad went to dance contests. “We used to go to a waltz contest and then a jitterbug contest. They’d give a case of beer to the winner. He’d win the waltz contest, and I’d win the damn jitterbug, and we’d have two cases of beer for Sunday.”

And what about the nickname? “The first day I went to school, I didn’t care for it,” Possum says. “So at recess I went up a tree and I wouldn’t come down. An older student said ‘I’ll get that possum out of that tree.’ I kept climbing up, and he couldn’t get me. I stayed there till the school bus came and then climbed down. Got a whipping when I got home and another when I got back to school the next day. Been Possum ever since.”

He was married to his late wife Jeanne for 40 years before she passed away. He has a daughter close by who checks on him every day.

 

Three New Properties for Homeless Veterans in 2016

With the opening of three Freedom’s Path properties, 2016 provided 159 brand new housing units for homeless Veterans in communities around the country, each being served by Solutions for Veterans so that the residents have better access to community resources.

Freedom’s Path at Kerrville

Veteran at Freedom's Path at Kerrville

After five years of dedicated work and a great deal of support from elected officials and local veterans, Freedom’s Path at Kerrville officially opened outside San Antonio, Texas on January 28, 2016. The complex provides 49 units and already housed 18 residents at the ribbon cutting early last year. For residents receiving care at the Kerrville VA Medical Center, the location—on land leased from the hospital—is ideal.

Freedom’s Path at Vancouver

Freedom's Path at Vancouver Groundbreaking

The new property in Vancouver, Washington provides 50 affordable units—40 of which are designated specifically for Veterans with vouchers from Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—and aims to give a quality housing option for those who have experienced long term homelessness.  The complex, on land that was previously a parking lot, is on Vancouver’s Veterans Affairs Campus.  Residents began moving in during late August of last year, a few weeks before the official ribbon cutting in September.

Freedom’s Path at Chillicothe

Freedom's Path at Chillicothe Grand Opening

A little over a year after construction began, Freedom’s Path at Chillicothe in Ohio held its ribbon cutting on December 15, 2016 and welcomed Veterans though its doors to move into 60 units of affordable housing. With 11 units already occupied at the time, the property got a jump start on helping homeless Veterans and those at risk of becoming homeless. Two rooms in the complex are designated for case management services associated with Chillicothe Veterans Affairs.

All of the properties are located on VA campuses and have amenities like cyber cafes, fitness centers, laundry rooms, and media rooms.

Groundbreaking for Freedom’s Path at Augusta

Renderings of Freedom’s Path at Augusta Gruber & Associates Architects, LLC

Renderings of Freedom’s Path at Augusta
Gruber & Associates Architects, LLC

The fifth Freedom’s Path property will breathe new life into a set of abandoned buildings on the campus of the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia.

Though construction is already underway, December 6, 2016 marked the ceremonial start of renovation of the three historic buildings that will become Freedom’s Path at Augusta through a lease agreement with the medical center. The buildings, empty for decades, once housed psychiatric patients and nursing quarters. By late 2017, they will be transformed into 98 units of permanent, affordable housing for homeless and at-risk Veterans and their families. Poor weather brought the groundbreaking ceremony inside, but it did not dampen the hopes of those who attended, who expressed their support for a project that will restore historical buildings while helping address homelessness in the area. Future residents will also be eligible for supportive services within the community through Solutions for Veterans.

The property is expected to open approximately one year from now at the end of December 2017. The four other Freedom’s Path properties are in Vancouver, Washington; Hines, Illinois; Chillicothe, Ohio; and Kerrville, Texas.

Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center serves approximately 44,826 veterans in Georgia and South Carolina.

Georgia map with Augusta pin