When I first sat down with Keith Shepperson, a navy veteran, I was visiting the shelter to highlight the story of clients during Veterans’ Season. In the end, I walked away from our interview truly inspired by his overwhelmingly positive outlook on life – despite his housing crisis.
I wondered how someone living in a shelter could be so optimistic, but he explained his philosophy saying, “I lean on my faith and stay positive… It’s not a hopeless situation. Any negativity if just noise. I had nothing – then something- and then I had nothing again, but it’s possible to regain that.”
Days after our initial meeting, and following months of submitting job applications, Keith was offered a full time position at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, where he monitors the equipment and infrastructure for the entire hospital. His work includes the management of lighting, heating and cooling, refrigerators, fire and life safety, water treatment, geothermal units, and back up generators.
Before losing his home, Keith worked previously as a Central Plant Operator and is well versed in engineering. When his company had to close its doors during the recession, he lived off of a severance package and two 401ks, but admitted that he was not aggressive enough in finding a new job during the economy’s downturn. Assuming things would get better, Keith found himself (like many Americans) looking for any work available and began completing odd jobs, especially for the elderly in his neighborhood.
As things worsened economically and finding steady work seemed to become more difficult, Keith was given notice that his home was in foreclosure and he was evicted. He began living on the streets of Henrico. During that time, he encountered a fourteen-year-old runaway, who he convinced to return home. The boy’s mother had recently passed away and he was clashing with his father; “I took him under my wing on the streets and showed him that he didn’t need to live this way. I gave him some change and encouraged him to go home. I saw him a few weeks later at the bus stop on his way to school and back on track.”
Now, Keith is working hard and on his way to gaining independent housing. When asked about his recent transition, he said “It takes a bit to get re-acclimated, but it’s been so great. I really like it, and it keeps me alert. I’m learning something new… about something old to me, but it’s still a new experience.”
Speaking about his new coworkers, he shared, “It’s all been fantastic. Everyone has been very helpful; they know my situation and some of them have been through this [HomeAgain] program, and now I work with them.”
Keith also expressed how good it felt to be employed through the VA and on the campus where HomeAgain’s Veteran Transitional Program is located. Not only is it convenient, but he feels as though he is giving back to the programs that are helping him regain stability. “It’s an opportunity to give back. I’m a vet and there’s that comradery. I help make sure my peers get the services they need here.”
He is currently working on debt reduction so that he can move into an apartment. Reflecting on his time with HomeAgain, Keith said, “The structure is geared towards you finding employment and getting back on your feet. When guys come in the door, we immediately greet them and share information on the program and resources available.”
As he continues to navigate our tiered program, Keith will remain at the shelter until he is ready to lease an apartment. Although it takes time, he is content because he enjoys being around the other veteran clients. “We are enjoying watching the Olympics together… We love seeing the U.S. compete and how many gold medals we get. Sports help bring us together.”
He went on to say, “The games are symbolic of what it means to have served. We want to see the U.S. do well. I mean, after all, we served for the country.”
I have sincerely enjoyed getting to know Keith, and hearing his story has been truly inspirational. Ultimately, he wants the community to know that those experiencing homelessness are worth noticing. “It could happen to anyone. It doesn’t mean that you’re worthless or a bad person. It’s not a hopeless situation.”
Keith also wants the homeless population to know that, “People still care about you, even if you’re homeless. As long as you’re trying, someone will be there for you.”
(Above: Keith is pictured wearing his work uniform and ID badge for the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center.)
Our first story featuring Keith can be found at: http://homeagainrichmond.org/veteran-recounts-living-invisible-streets/