For almost twenty years, Ellis Thompson lived his life on the street, struggling with drug addiction and using the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center in New Jersey as a crutch to keep living on the street. Today, with the help of the Wilmington VA, HUD VASH and the Friendship House in Wilmington, Delaware, Mr. Thompson is in the process of buying a home.
"I have a new life and I'm enjoying it," Thompson told participants of the Wilmington VA Annual Homeless Summit in Vineland, New Jersey in October where attendees applauded his success. "Every morning from Monday through Friday I facilitate meetings...for homeless men on the street."
Thompson says the men he counsels remember him, in his words, as a skinny old guy with white hair and no teeth.
"They saw me when I arrived in Wilmington, Delaware 6 foot 4. I weighed 140 pounds," he said." I lost so much weight, I had to put extra holes in my belt that went all the way around to the back of my spine. I was so thin."
Many of the homeless men who participate in Thompson's meetings have witnessed the growth in his life. Today, he's a deacon at his church. He has his own apartment. He has reunited with his wife and family and he is the picture of health with a beautiful toothy smile.
If you rewind to Thompson's early years, he was injured while serving his country. Drugs took over his life and he kept going to his local VA in New Jersey in 1985, and returned again in 1989, 1992 and 2000. He lived in a shelter where he took showers with over 100 men waiting in line, and was badgered by the career homeless who were protective of their spots in the shelter.
In 2008, he showed up at the VA in Wilmington. He says the staff there made him accountable and he was placed at the Friendship House in Wilmington. That's when he started taking the suggestions of people at the VA. He went to meetings, joined a church, and focused on his recovery. Thompson explained that the real test for him was when his first disability check came in and he had to decide whether to use the money to get high for an hour or to get his life together. He made the right choice and a short time later, he was approved for the HUD-VASH program. He got his own apartment, reunited with his family and is working now to buy a home in Delaware. He advised caretakers of the homeless to not give up on vets like him who keep coming back.
"So don't stop and don't get discouraged when they keep coming back. Because the last time I came back, I did get it right," said Thompson who admitted he lied to himself, his family and others who tried to help him over the years.
"All the things that you provide, continue to do it!" pleaded Thompson. "We know y'all do that sometimes and it's a thankless job, but make us veterans be accountable!"
He says he humbled himself, accepted his wrongs and took responsibility for his life. And, he credits the Wilmington VA staff, the HUD-VASH program and his spiritual beliefs for making him the man he is today. Thompson has this advice for veterans who are struggling with their addictions in shelters or on the streets.
"Stop, look at yourself," advises Thompson. "Don't blame the world, don't blame society, and don't blame your race because you, and I had the right, when I began to exercise it, to say no..."
Thompson explained a life of addiction sabotages your health, your family and your future but you can overcome the addiction and you can find joy in life.
"It can be done, so I'm living proof. I'm a living witness," said Thompson who promises other drug addicted veterans that "...you can never fall so far that you can't pick yourself back up."
At 59, Thompson stands tall and proud of his success and grateful for the opportunity to inspire other vets on the street and to encourage people at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD and homeless care providers to continue the lifesaving work they do for veterans in Delaware, New Jersey and across the country.
Thompson's success puts Delaware one step closer to reaching its goal of ending homelessness for veterans in 2013. The state's Continnum of Care, under the leadership of the Delaware Homeless Planning Council, is following the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness Federal Strategic Plan, Opening Doors. It is the nation's first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness. Opening Doors serves as a roadmap for joint action by federal government agencies, led by HUD and the VA, along with local and state partners in the public and private sectors to accomplish ending veteran and chronic homelessness by 2015 and ending homelessness among families, youth, and children by 2020. For more information about how the VA and HUD partner to help homeless veterans, click on HUD VASH. For confidential help for veterans and their families, call the VA crisis line at (800) 273-8255 and press 1. The USICH believes "No one should experience homelessness. No one should be without a safe, stable place to call home."