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Veteran Recounts “Living Invisible” On the Streets

 

Adopted at infancy, Keith Shepperson, was raised right here in Richmond. He shared memories of growing up in the city, attending Armstrong High School, and having a lifelong interest in technical engineering. “I was always tinkering with everything and fascinated by how it worked,” he said.

That interest led Keith to serve in the United States Navy for 9 years and 1 month, where he fine-tuned technical skills before exiting and gaining employment as a building engineer for Honda in Torrance, California. He worked with the AC and HVAC systems in buidings for the majority of his life, and used these skills to also work at the J. Paul Getty Museum for 9 years, where he was the Central Plant Operator.

Things changed for Keith in 2002 when he got divorced and decided to return home to Virginia. He easily found work as an HVAC technician, and eventually was promoted to Group Leader and Shift Supervisor. After some time leading his crew, the company went out of business and Keith assisted in the shutdown until the doors were closed for good.

For some time, he lived off of his 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 lived on the streets of Henrico for four days.

“It was a gut check at first… I froze there in time for a moment,” he explained.

Despite the fact that Keith was literally sleeping on benches, his overwhelmingly positive outlook on life helped him. Even as he described his time living out on his own, he complimented how nice the weather was and how fortunate he was that it was warm.

Keith visited The Daily Planet, the American Legion, and Commonwealth Catholic Charities getting assitance where he could. He stayed in overflow for two weeks and was led to the homeless department at the VA hospital. He stayed at the Salvation Army for 75 days before there was space for him to be placed through the VA’s program.

While at the Salvation Army, Keith volunteered to help feed other homeless individuals every night. He worked in the kitchen and helped serve food, knowing that even in his circumstance- it was important to do all he could to assist others. In February of 2016, he was able to move in to HomeAgain’s Veteran Transitional Housing facility. He said, “It was very nice. It was good right away.”

Like many homeless veterans, his family has no idea that he was ever living on the streets and they are unaware that he is staying at one of HomeAgain’s shelters. “My family doesn’t know. I will tell them when I’m out… and my ex-wife and my son. It’s something I have to go through personally,” he said. When asked why he did not turn to them for help, he replied “There are so many resources and a lof of it is self-motivating. I got myself into this mess, and I’m going to get myself out.”

Keith did everything he could to make himself attractive to employers and expressed that he has searched for a new job the entire time he has been without a home. He described working closely with River City’s Veteran Employment Program and the VA’s homeless department to make connections and get interviews.

His dedication and ambition have paid off, as we learned that he was just offered a full-time position at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center as a Utilities Systems Operator, where he will work with the municipal infrastrucutre of the hospital.

Keith is certainly on track to restore his independence and to overcome his homlessness. While reflecting on his situation he said, “I happened to fall on hard times, but I see it all as a challenge… It’s a brand new adventure. You can do it – people have done it.”

When asked about his future plans, outside of working hard, Keith excitedly shared that he was looking forward to going to the gym, fishing, playing golf and softball, and spending time outdoors. He also shared that he may carry out plans to write a book, an idea he conceived while homeless. The book, entitled Living Invisible, would discuss what it is like to experience a housing crisis and the way people tend to overlook the homeless population.

Keith believes that he can make a difference in the lives of others and has currently taken on a young electrical engineer as a mentee. He wants to stress the importance of getting an education, staying out of trouble, and becoming a respectable member of society.

His positive attitude radiated throughout his interview as he said, “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.”