A place to call home

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

The beginning of what could have been the end came in the dead of a typically cold January night in the northeast corner of the state.

“She was laying on my shoulder in the morning,” Devon Williams recalls. “I was cold. I tried to move her, and that’s when I realized she was just kind of dead weight.”

He was cold because she was cold.

Kristin Nicole Wolf, Williams’ third wife, was only 35 when she died mysteriously on Jan. 10, 2009, in La Grande.

“All I know is she died in the middle of the night,” says Williams, 44, now of Eugene. “That just kind of pushed me over the edge.”

A member of the Oregon Army National Guard since 1996, Williams served as a sergeant with the Guard for a year in Iraq, from November 2004 to November 2005.

He met Wolf by email when he was in Kirkuk, about 100 miles north of Baghdad, working as an ammunition supply specialist. She was working in Ohio for the United Service Organizations, better known as the USO, shipping packages to troops.

Years later, after he’d lost Wolf, the mother of his two children, Williams already was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his year in Iraq and other stresses; stresses rooted in a life that began in Amarillo, Texas, in 1971 when he was born to a 14-year-old mother.

By the time he was almost 7 and adopted by a Texas couple, he had been passed from one biological family member to another no fewer than 10 times, he says.

After Wolf’s death, which doctors attributed to complications from giving birth, four weeks early, on Nov. 24, 2008, to daughter Delilah, now 6, things began to spiral out of control for Williams.

In the next few years, he bounced from one Veterans Administration hospital to the next, from Boise to Portland, Walla Walla to Roseburg, — stays that lasted anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to a month — while his children bounced in and out of foster care.

Rock bottom came four years ago this month, during a stretch when he and Delilah, and son Drake, now 8, were homeless in the Eugene-Springfield area for about nine months.

Home flitted between his pickup truck and/or travel trailer or the occasional stay in a cheap motel.

It was at the latter, on Highway 99 in Eugene on a November night in 2011, when the police arrived. They came because Williams passed out while talking on the phone with a VA responder who, concerned, called 911.

Williams attributed his collapse to not eating well and running out of blood pressure medication the VA had prescribed.

While the police took him to the hospital, they took Drake and Delilah to the state Department of Human Services. They went back to foster care.

He went back to his pickup truck.

“His life could have gone two ways: It could have completely blown up or it could have turned around,” says Anne Williams, housing programs director at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County. “And we just happened to be there at the crossroads.”

A home of their own

The “crossroads” Anne Williams, no relation to Devon, is talking about is a program called Vet LIFT.

A decade-old collaboration between St. Vincent de Paul and the VA, it stands for Veterans Living Independently Following Treatment.

It’s the reason Devon Williams, once homeless, now owns his own home.

“Our mission is basically to address community needs, and this was a huge community need,” Anne Williams says.

Vet LIFT provides assistance to homeless veterans dually diagnosed with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

Williams says he has no issues with substance abuse, despite a 2011 charge for driving under the influence after taking the prescribed sleep aid Ambien, but qualified for the program based on his PTSD diagnosis.

The program has purchased three apartment complexes in west Eugene in recent years to provide immediate housing to vets who qualify.

It also provides counseling, health care referrals, financial literacy and vocational assessment services.

On Oct. 14, at the Valley River Inn, Anne Williams accepted the Eugene Mayor’s Award for community service, presented to Vet LIFT at the fourth annual Serenity Lane Community Service Awards Breakfast.

She talked a bit about the program to the packed room of about 400 then brought up someone she said best exemplifies the program’s success.

That “someone” was Devon Williams.

Many in the crowd were moved when he brought his children on stage and talked tearily about what’s it’s like to be a homeless, single dad.

He mentioned how “something as simple as being able to bathe can make a difference” in a homeless person’s life.

Asked why she selected Devon instead of another veteran who has been helped by Vet LIFT, Anne Williams said: “Because his story was so compelling, and he represented all of the successes we’ve had and represented them so eloquently.

“He is the face of the current conflict that people can really identify with. He’s a veteran, a father, and he’s faced adversity and overcome it.”

Reducing the numbers

Vet LIFT claims to have helped reduce Lane County’s population of homeless veterans from nearly 4,500 in 2005 to about 200 today.

The numbers are difficult to assess and differ sharply from Lane County’s.

In 2005, Lane County’s biennial one-night homeless count, conducted every other January, counted 1,293 homeless people in the county, 76 of them who said they were veterans.

This past January, 1,473 homeless people were counted, 210 of them who said they were veterans, according to county numbers.

The Lane County count “misses a huge number of folks,” Anne Williams says. “And there are (veterans) who’ve been living out in the woods forever. Blue River is full of them. Veneta is full of them. Oakridge is full of them. It’s an aging population. Winter is rough, and it’s almost here again.”

The 2005 numbers that Vet LIFT refers to were based on those provided by the VA’s annual CHALENG (Community Homelessness Assessment Local Education and Networking Groups) survey, Anne Williams says.

The push in recent years by local, state and federal organizations to end veteran homelessness can be traced to a five-year goal set in 2010 by President Obama’s administration, a joint effort between the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to end vet homelessness in the United States by the end of 2015.

First lady Michelle Obama said last year, at a White House ceremony to unveil the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, a piece of the initiative involving mayors from across the nation, that there were still about 58,000 homeless veterans in the United States, according to a New York Times story.

Yet, that was a 33 percent decrease from 2010, the administration said in a separate statement earlier in 2014.

The Obama administration has devoted record amounts of money toward finding homes for veterans, with $1.6 billion proposed in President Obama’s 2015 budget, Michelle Obama was quoted as saying in the New York Times story.

Emergency housing

St. Vincent de Paul was able to cobble together hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Vet LIFT started in 2005, Anne Williams says.

A small federal grant of $117,000 from HUD provided for the purchase of an old apartment complex at 951 W. Seventh Ave.

More money came from a $300,000 city of Eugene loan. An additional $246,000 came from a federal Community Development Block Grant loan, and various state mental health and addiction programs provided more funding, Williams says.

“I used as much as I could get from every single source I could find,” she says, sitting in her cluttered office at St. Vincent de Paul’s administrative building on Chad Drive in northeast Eugene.

Vet LIFT later bought the apartment buildings at 1025 W. Seventh Ave. and 1070 W. Sixth Ave. Hundreds of homeless veterans have been housed there in the past decade, Anne Williams says.

Devon Williams lived at St. Vincent de Paul’s emergency housing beds at the Mary Skinner Apartments on West Second Avenue in January 2012, then moved into the 1025 W. Seventh Ave. building in February. He lived there for much of that year, his children moving between there and foster care.

Funding through Vet LIFT’s Grant and Per Diem program, at the VA rate of what is now $43.20 a day, paid for the housing, Anne Williams says.

Last fall, St. Vincent de Paul’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families, or SSVF, program received a three-year, $3 million grant from the VA, Anne Williams says. The goal is to serve 200 veteran households per year for three years by either getting veterans housed or preventing them from being evicted from their residences.

To be eligible for funding, veterans must have served at least one day in any of the U.S. military’s five branches and have an honorable discharge.

“Everybody responded”

Devon Williams continued to serve weekend duty in the Oregon Army National Guard after returning from Iraq in 2005.

In 2009, after his wife died, he was honorably discharged because of his mental health issues, he says.

He took the kids to Carrizo Springs, Texas, where his adoptive mother and father, Joanne and Wayne Williams, live. That didn’t work out for very long, though, and they went back to La Grande, where Devon Williams had moved from Barstow, Calif., in his early 20s.

The next couple of years took them to Forest Grove, where he has a teenage son, and then to Eugene-Springfield, where Williams met a woman he would marry, and divorce, twice.

They shared a home in Springfield, but once he was on his own again he didn’t have much.

“The kids and I were basically homeless,” between April 2011 and January 2012, says Williams, sitting in the sparsely furnished, three-bedroom home he was able to buy in August on Hidden Lane, off Highway 58 in Eugene, just east of Interstate 5, thanks to a loan from the VA.

“Devon’s was a case everybody responded to,” Anne Williams says. “Everyone was saying, ‘This guy cannot live in his truck with his kids, so how are we going to make this happen?’ ”

“I can’t believe my life”

How a homeless veteran was able to buy his own home can be traced to weekly VA meetings Williams attend in 2011.

That’s where he met Joey Canaday, a Vet LIFT case manager who now works in the same capacity for the SSVF program at the Chad Drive office.

“And he looked fairly grimy,” says Canaday, himself an Air Force veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “And when they finally have a place to shower and put their stuff, you can see the transformation. He just looked like a regular guy (then).”

Devon Williams was eventually able to get 100 percent VA disability because of his mental health issues, he says.

That gave him enough money to leave the Vet LIFT housing on West Seventh Avenue and rent a home in Springfield.

According to the VA’s Compensation Benefits Rate Tables, a veteran on 100 percent disability with one child receives $3,015.22 a month in benefits, and $80.52 per month more for each additional child under 18.

That money enabled Williams to save enough money to buy his home on Hidden Lane, with an acre of property in the back, for about $285,000.

As part of the Vet LIFT program, Williams was eligible for a Valley Individual Development Account, or VIDA, which helps low- to moderate-income people save money that’s compounded by a match of state and federal funds.

For every $1 you save, the match is $3, up to $3,000, Anne Williams says. Thus, the $3,000 Devon Williams saved was matched by $9,000, giving him the $12,000 he used as a down payment to buy his home.

“But, more importantly, it gave him contact with one individual who was able to counsel him and keep him focused on his goal,” Anne Williams says.

Devon Williams says his mortgage is $1,685. After he pays other bills, he still has enough for food for the three of them and to buy them clothes when needed.

“It’s enough to cover everything and put food in our refrigerator and a roof over our heads,” says Williams, who tends to fluctuate between an easygoing laugh and moments when his face is strained and the turmoil within him stirs.

He does not work but has been collecting landscaping equipment. He has this idea of organizing other homeless veterans to get landscaping jobs. All would put a percentage of money they make back into the program to buy more equipment.

On a Monday afternoon in mid-October, he is cutting potatoes and onions to make pot roast as the kids run around the house; Drake with a bubble-blowing gun, and Delilah back and forth between the kitchen and her bedroom, where her voice booms from a singing machine.

Both children are students at Two Rivers-Dos Rios Elementary School in Springfield.

“I’m in this, like, period right now, to where I can’t believe where my life is,” Williams says. “I never thought I’d be buying a home.

“I’d lost all hope”

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkBakerRG . Email mark.baker@registerguard.com .