Fayette County

Lexington's St. James Place provides a home for veterans struggling to turn their lives around

Michael Hoel, a U.S. Navy vet., left, and Tim Prewitt, a U.S. Army vet., right,  in Michael's room at St. James Place Apartments, 169 Deweese St. in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, November 13, 2014. St. James Place is helping a handful of homeless vets transition from a two year program focused on making them model citizens to graduate houses where they will stay until they are able to buy homes on their own. Both of the men currently have apartments there but will move into a house where Tim will be a house manager. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff  Michael Hoel, a U.S. Navy vet., left, and Tim Prewitt, a U.S. Army vet., right,  in Michael's room at St. James Place Apartments, 169 Deweese St. in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, November 13, 2014. St. James Place is helping a handful of homeless vets transition from a two year program focused on making them model citizens to graduate houses where they will stay until they are able to buy homes on their own. Both of the men currently have apartments there but will move into a house where Tim will be a house manager. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Michael Hoel, a U.S. Navy vet., left, and Tim Prewitt, a U.S. Army vet., right, in Michael's room at St. James Place Apartments, 169 Deweese St. in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, November 13, 2014. St. James Place is helping a handful of homeless vets transition from a two year program focused on making them model citizens to graduate houses where they will stay until they are able to buy homes on their own. Both of the men currently have apartments there but will move into a house where Tim will be a house manager. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Michael Hoel, a U.S. Navy vet., left, and Tim Prewitt, a U.S. Army vet., right, in Michael's room at St. James Place Apartments, 169 Deweese St. in Lexington, Ky., Thursday, November 13, 2014. St. James Place is helping a handful of homeless vets transition from a two year program focused on making them model citizens to graduate houses where they will stay until they are able to buy homes on their own. Both of the men currently have apartments there but will move into a house where Tim will be a house manager. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

Tim Prewitt and Michael Hoel didn't know each other, but they lived similar lives before crossing the threshold of St. James Place in downtown Lexington.

They were soldiers who were honorably discharged but eventually became homeless and struggled with addiction.

Heavy drinking, jail cell cots, the homes of others — including those that produced methamphetamine labs — had became home.

Then both men found themselves occupying rooms at St. James Place last year and beginning a two-year program providing veterans with job training and assistance, and financial stability with a savings account.

"It's amazing what this place has done for me," Prewitt said while holding back tears. "It has opened doors for me that I didn't think could be opened. When I got to Lexington I was a very broken individual. I was broken spiritually, mentally and physically."

In a few weeks Prewitt and Hoel will begin another stage in their lives as they move into graduate houses provided by St. James and donations from the Blue Grass Community Foundation.

St. James, which added units for homeless vets in 2006, is a supportive housing program subsidized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and run by the Foundation for Affordable Housing Inc., which is affiliated with Central Christian Church.

Each room, which resembles those in a college dormitory, has a single bed, a kitchenette with a full-size refrigerator, sink, microwave and a private toilet with shower.

Prewitt, 49, served in the Army from 1985 to 1991. He was a 19-year-old working on military helicopters, but he said he began to see himself "slip," especially spiritually. Prewitt spoke with a chaplain, who suggested they meet at a bar. One beer snowballed into an addiction, he said.

After Prewitt left the military, he drank cases of beer in one sitting, fought drug-related court cases and attempted suicide.

Prewitt arrived in Lexington from Corbin with a bag full of clothes and other personal belongings.

A 30-pack of beer a day was Hoel's reality for years after he left the Navy in 1992. Hoel was a heavy drinker before he entered the Navy. He said it was a coping mechanism as he dealt with issues from his childhood. The alcohol affected his personal life. When he did have a job, he would miss days due to alcohol.

He bounced around from job to job in his hometown of Lima, Ohio, before he landed a job at a machine shop. Soon after his wife filed for divorce, he lost his job and filed for unemployment.

According to statistics on the Kentucky Department of Veteran Affairs website, there are 2,000 homeless veterans across the state and 245 in the Lexington area.

Patrick McKiernan, state homeless veterans coordinator, said the reasons for homelessness among vets vary but are due in large part to underemployment, drug or alcohol problems, and mental health issues.

"A rising area of concern is unemployment, and in part the economic downturn represents at least some explanation for the rise in veteran unemployment and subsequent homelessness," he said.

Another contributing factor is that the training given to military personnel does not transfer well into regular society, McKiernan said.

"Neither the military nor the Department of Veterans Affairs wants to see any veteran become homeless," he said.

McKiernan said the issues surrounding homeless veterans are known, and the "Department of Defense and the VA have increased safety-net programs and direct services such as substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling and clinics as well as financial assistance programs to protect the veterans and their family members."

Dean Hammond, former St. James Place executive director, attributed much of St. James' success to help from the VA and donations from the community.

The graduate houses — a duplex on Maywick View Lane and a house on Ellison Court — will provide continued structure for the veterans as they transition from the facility tucked away on Deweese Street to living on their own.

"For any of the homeless trying to get back on their feet, structure is the game," Hammond said. "They have to have a place to be, rules to follow, get along with people around them and other things we do in society. ... You have to work them back into the weave of society. ... Then they have to be able to survive financially."

But when it comes to transitioning from St. James to the graduate houses, the support from the foundation is what made it possible, Hammond said.

The purchase of the homes was made possible by three charitable funds at the foundation that support homeless veterans, children and women, said Lisa Adkins, president and CEO of Blue Grass Community Foundation.

"The beauty of this project is that originally, St. James Place was only trying to fund the down payment for one graduate house, which was a very time-sensitive matter," she said. "The result is that it enabled these donors to collaboratively fund a groundbreaking project in Lexington and achieve greater impact than each could have done acting separately."

Prewitt and Hoel are overwhelmed with excitement as they venture into life together as roommates and rebound after hitting rock bottom.

The breaking point for Prewitt was his suicide attempt. He put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger, but the shell didn't release.

Prewitt then spent more than a year at the Homeless Veterans Transitional Treatment Program at the VA Medical Center's Leestown campus, where he graduated before moving to St. James. He continued a straight path and was given probation for drug-related charges and ordered to follow strict guidelines in veterans drug court. Prewitt has been sober for more than two years.

In January, he is scheduled to graduate from Everest College with a bachelor's degree in computer science.

"It's amazing what this place has done for me," Prewitt said. "For years, all the times I was drinking and drugging I didn't feel like a veteran. I didn't feel like I deserved to even be called a veteran. Today, I can show a little pride and say that I am a veteran."

Hoel's pitfalls came after the end of his marriage, which suffered during his 15 years in the military as an electrician, and after his unemployment benefits ran out. He blamed himself for his family's failure as two of his sons were incarcerated. He would drink and get high with them, he said.

"No father is supposed to do that," Hoel said. "So, I felt really bad about that. Not feeling really good about yourself, so "why not drink.'"

Eventually he was able to turn his life around when he moved to Lexington in 2012 to stay with his son. He's been sober for more than two years.

"All of that is in the past. I've moved on," Hoel said with a smile and his hands folded. "This graduate house is going to be a good steppingstone ... I'm excited."

It's time for both of the men to leave St. James, but Prewitt and Hoel said they are appreciative of the facility and the donations given by the foundation. Hoel hopes to live on his own eventually and buy a piece of property and a cottage. Prewitt, who will be a house manager, said he's considering a master's degree and becoming a counselor.

  Comments