Homeless Jacksonville veteran tells his story after officials speak on the subject
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Ronnie Hellum’s eight years in the Army were the best days of his life.
He had structure. Purpose. An important job. A steady paycheck. People depended on him.
After getting out, he was adrift. And over the years he’s suffered many losses: His son, murdered at 17. His family. His freedom, after running afoul of the law. His job. And his health — he ended up profoundly depressed.
Two years ago he became homeless, sleeping under bridges, in bushes off the side of the road.
But on Wednesday, Hellum, 56, stood right next to some national and local leaders as they talked about the nation’s responsibility to help veterans who have ended up homeless.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a retired Army general, came to the Clara White Mission in downtown Jacksonville. So did Mayor Alvin Brown and U.S. Reps Corrine Brown and Ander Crenshaw.
In a time of fractious politics, they said, it’s a bipartisan effort when it comes to helping homeless vets.
There are a lot of those vets — about one in every four homeless people in Jacksonville, said Dawn Gilman of the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition.
Shinseki touted President Barack Obama’s “unwavering” commitment to homeless veterans, pointing to various programs and $100 million in grants aimed at getting housing for vets. Jacksonville recently received $1 million from that program.
Shinseki said there were an estimated 107,000 homeless vets in 2009, a figure that went down to about 67,500 in 2011. The VA’s goal, he said, is to make that number zero by 2015.
Hellum, part of group of people getting job training at Clara White Mission, was asked to stand next to the officials as they made their speeches. Afterwards, he said he ran into other homeless vets every day he lived on the streets.
He grew up in Wewahitchka in the Florida Panhandle — a nice little town, he said — and joined the Army. He had a family to support, a common-law wife with one child and another on the way. He ended up as a helicopter crew chief at Alabama’s Fort Rucker.
“It was the best part of my life,” he said. “The best part of my life. It really was.”
For the past couple of months, Hellum has found a place to sleep at Clara White and a sense of purpose, too: He’s enrolled in its custodial training program and already has a part-time job cleaning up the facility there.
“I just feel like my life is really getting back on track,” he said. “I feel good about my life.”