Program Gives Homeless Vets Second Chance

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Ralph Lewis is proud of his room.

The bed, dresser and window are all things the 54-year-old didn't have a year ago, when he was homeless.

"It got to wearing on me because I'm kicking myself in the butt, going why did you let yourself get this far down," Lewis said.

In 2006, Lewis' world collapsed.

He was at the beginning of a messy divorce. Months passed. He lost his car and eventually, his home.

But Lewis wasn't alone.

He was one of at least 100,000 Americans that are homeless on any given night.

One out of every four of those people is a veteran, like himself.

This past year, Lewis turned to the Freedom House for help.

"Being homeless and not having your own place sometimes can be very depressing," said Lewis, a disabled Navy vet. "I had a real big chip on my shoulders when I first came here. My first two weeks, I hated everybody. I didn't want to hear nothing."

But eventually he warmed up to the handful of men around him.

"The Freedom House helps provide a home for about 100 veterans each year, offering them counseling and services to make them independent again," said Matthew Slater, director of Family and Community Services.

The program is funded by government grants and the community.

"We work with them to find out what barriers they have, from employment to their benefits to getting housing," Slater said.

About 300 to 400 veterans experience homelessness in Lorain County, and that number more than doubles to 1,000 veterans in Summit County.

"We have, in the past two years combined, about 80 percent of our veterans successfully getting into housing. The national average for these programs is around 50 percent. The reason why we're successful, we do have a great staff, but it's truly community input," Slater said.

While there is concern that veteran homelessness could magnify as thousands of troops return from Iraq, Slater said there are a number of programs to help counter that possibility.

Now the homeless vets program is planning to expand, increasing from the 14 beds at Freedom House to nearly 100 throughout northeast Ohio.

It's a movement Lewis said is important for the community, so those who are struggling can have a place to call home.

As Lewis is about to graduate from Freedom House, he's also waiting to find out his future.

He has applied to get disability benefits through the Department of Veteran's Affairs.

Yet, above all, Lewis said he wants to reunite with his estranged family and make them proud once again.

"It kind of separated us and it's really sad," he said. "I miss them. I want to go with a positive feeling that my family loves me and everything's going to be okay."

Regardless, Lewis said he's ready to move forward and build a home, especially after not having one for such a long time.

"My biggest goal is to be self-sufficient, move ahead in my life, live out the rest of my life, for whatever, how many days I got left on this green Earth and just enjoy it to the fullest," he said.

With thousands of troops returning home from Iraq, Fox 8 wants to recognize the local men and women who have served.

Reporter Annette Lawless will help share the story of our young soldiers, veterans, their families, the homecomings and resources throughout the community.

Fox 8 is honored to recognize the military hero in your life.

You can e-mail your story to annette.lawless@fox8.com.