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Program helps veteran rise from homelessness
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Things kept getting worse for Royce Brown.

The plumbing job he'd held for more than 15 years had slowly become less steady. By the time the company he was working for went defunct toward the end of 2010, the then-45-year-old couldn't afford to pay his rent.

He lost his home. Within a month he'd lost everything.

Brown placed blame on anything he could.

"I blamed the economy, I blamed the president, I blamed from top to bottom, you know," he said. "I blamed everything. What can you do? What can you do? There's no more work out there. No work. Nobody needs a plumber."

For more than a year, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran lived on the streets. He slept on friends' couches when he could; other nights he just walked. Often he meandered from one side of Savannah to the other just to kill time. Just to stay alive.

"I would sit in the park up until the time that you can't sit there anymore, then I'd walk all night," Brown said. "I'd find a little place to sit down and rest and get back up and walk."

Brown's life began to improve about three months ago after an encounter with a peer counselor from Goodwill Industries of the Coastal Empire and an introduction to the non-profit organization's Operation Open Doors.

When he was a recruit stationed at the Marine Corps Recruiting Depot at Parris Island, S.C., in 1986, Brown didn't think life could get any more difficult.

Almost 25 years later, Brown's mind was drastically changed.

"Parris Island was a struggle, you know — hard, physical work, but I liked that," he said. "It was tough, but that's why I wanted to be a Marine, because they seemed tougher than anyone else ... But it's nothing like (being homeless) was. Not knowing where you're going to sleep every night.

"Nothing's worse than not knowing where your next meal is coming from. That's scary; I'm talking about terrifying."

Because he lacked proper identification, Brown could not stay at a shelter. Some nights he'd sleep at a friend's house, but he didn't like to impose.

"They helped me out, but you can't always put that on someone, you know, and you can't expect someone to feed you or whatever it may be," he said. "And, for me, I'd never been in any situation like that before, so I didn't know where to go."

Nighttime was the worst.

When the sun set, Brown said, he did everything he could to avoid people.

More than once he was robbed of what little he had. Occasionally he was attacked, but thanks to his Marine Corps values, Brown said, he stayed away from the temptations of drugs and violence.

"That's basically what kept me going through it," he said. "You know it kept me motivated; it kept me always staying positive.

"I was falling down a hill, but as a Marine, you know, you always try to stay motivated."

Since Goodwill Industries of the Coastal Empire launched Operation Open Doors in September 2010 it has helped about 300 homeless veterans in Chatham County find work, said Tabeter Robinson, the program's director.

Operation Open Doors' mission is to shrink the population of homeless veterans in the county by providing training and helping them find a job.

No matter what skills a veteran may come into the program with, Robinson said, each person starts from the beginning.

They learn to use a computer, to write a resume and how to interview for a job. Goodwill provides them with clothing and shoes and reconnects them with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

"It's life-changing for them," Robinson said. "A large majority of them don't realize they even have veterans benefits from the VA. That alone is a huge improvement in their lives with access to health care and programs that can help them improve their quality of life."

It can be a difficult process, Robinson said, and many of the people who start the program don't finish it.

But it is worth it, she said, to see many of them better themselves.

"These veterans go and they sacrifice for us, and this is my payback to the sacrifice that they've done for our country," Robinson said. "To see someone smile, working on a job it makes it all worthwhile."

Every Tuesday, Goodwill's peer counselors go into the community to locate homeless veterans and recruit them into the program.

That's how peer counselor Lamar Oliver, an Air Force veteran, found Brown in March at the Old Savannah City Mission, where Brown had gone in search of a meal.

Brown immediately immersed himself in the program, Robinson said.

"He was here every day of the week," she said. "He went above and beyond, and because he came in on fire and ready to work we were able to place him fairly quickly."

That placement was in an open custodial position at the West Broad YMCA that Peter Doliber, the YMCA's president and CEO, inquired with Goodwill about filling.

"That's a good source for us for a lot of employees," Doliber said. "They're great partners. A lot of people go to them for services and assistance, and it helps us because we know that we're going to get a good qualified applicant."

Robinson said she immediately knew Brown would be a fit. Doliber agreed.

"I knew the discipline a veteran tends to have," Doliber said. "They'll tend to have a stronger work ethic and a greater appreciation for where they work and what they do, and that's certainly true with Royce. When Royce came and met with us — he's a very humble man and takes his work very seriously — you could see that very clearly. He was exactly who we needed."

At 46 years old, Brown knows he's been given an opportunity to start his life over.

He credits Operation Open Doors with lifting him up.

"They helped me get everything back," he said. "Especially getting this job and getting out on my own. That's the main thing they helped me get, is getting back to the workforce. When I'm getting paid, I can buy the things I need, you know, and be on my own."

Three months ago Brown slept on the streets; today he's working toward getting his own apartment.

"I'm not in the streets. No streets," Brown said. "I'm doing all right right now with a room, and I'm saving some money, I've got a bank account, and I'm saving my money to get back into an apartment and get everything back straight in my life that I lost."

In his short time at the West Broad YMCA, Brown's already earned a raise and has been given more shifts.

That, Doliber said, is because he's earned it.

"He works very hard," Doliber said. "He comes in on time every day and you don't have to ask him to do anything.

"He takes care of everything he's supposed to, and he looks for other things he can do to help. He's just a good steward. He watches how much stuff is being used, he watches the chemicals, he makes sure things are locked up and he watches for safety. He's just a really, really good person."

It's a good job, Brown said, and he enjoys doing it.

"I am just very, very happy here," he said. "I thought maybe I wouldn't like it, but I do. It's more than just cleaning up. I do a lot of stuff around here."

And he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.

"I think about where I could be right now," he said. "If it wasn't for Operation Open Doors, you know, I'd be in the street with nowhere to go. Now I'm happy. Things are good. As long as I keep working, keep getting paid, getting raises and more hours things are good."

The program wasn't a handout, Brown said. Veterans in the program can't just show up and expect to improve their lives. But people who put everything they've got into it can find success.

"I didn't have any other choice at this point," Brown said. "I was ashamed at first to look for help. But it's not a handout, it's a hand up. I'd tell other vets, you know, you can do this and you can get your life back. Look at me."


Information from: Savannah Morning News,

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