Program Pairs Homeless Vets with Green Jobs

ST. LOUIS -- It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Eddie Williams Jr.'s life got off track.

It didn't take the nose dive he says it easily could have as a kid hanging out on East St. Louis streets. But it never took off in the way he'd hoped after serving a stint in the Army and working for decades in various blue-collar jobs.

Today, at 55, he can be found most workdays preparing the grounds at the Missouri Botanical Garden for winter. He helped plant 55,000 tulip bulbs and is fastidious in removing leaves that have fallen into beds of the north gardens, where he works under the supervision of Jason Delaney.

"He's a phenomenal worker," said Delaney, "and very jovial in nature. That really adds to his performance."

Williams got the temporary, full-time position through a program that pairs homeless, or near homeless, veterans with green jobs. The jobs are in landscaping or recycling.

The program is managed by St. Patrick Center and funded by a Department of Labor grant.

The program is in its second year, and 44 of the 78 vets who went through training have been placed in jobs. The first year, 45 of the 64 vets, mainly men, gained employment through the program.

Agencies that provide assistance to homeless vets find their task challenging. They are often dealing with men who have been in prison, have a history of substance abuse, are mentally ill, or a combination of the three.

Homeless veterans throughout the U.S. stand at about 67,000, accounting for 10 percent of the total homeless population.

In the city of St. Louis, about 12 percent of the 1,300 homeless are veterans.

The Obama administration has made it a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. National numbers released this month show a 12 percent decline in the number of homeless veterans this year compared to 2010.

According to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the federal government since 2009 has worked with more than 4,000 community agencies to find permanent housing for 33,597 veterans.

But as more troops come home from a shuttered war in Iraq, the number of vets struggling to find their way could spike, said Bill Siedhoff, director of the St. Louis Department of Human Services.

"There's a very dedicated effort to try to do more to assist veterans," Siedhoff said. After serving abroad, often in dangerous parts of the world, "there is carryover from those experiences and they find it more difficult to adjust and be part of society."

The St. Patrick Center program, formally called Veterans GO! Green, works with 40 companies to provide hands-on training. In doing so, the hope is those businesses will feel more comfortable hiring from the program, or encouraging others to do so. Most of the jobs are entry level and pay $8 to $10 an hour.

Vietnam Vet

Williams was a combat engineer with the Army and stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. He has toiled in various jobs for most of his life. His favorite was working as a fryer at a potato chip factory. But he lost that job when the company moved to Georgia, Williams said.

For the past five or six years, it's been a struggle to keep work. He took jobs through a temp agency, but nothing stuck. He has worked for the post office, a surveying company, a steel foundry and on an assembly line making television stands for Walmart. He has cut grass, cleaned garages, collected aluminum cans. Anything to provide for his family, which includes a wife (they are separated) and six children. He's been able to stay in his foreclosed house in Cahokia, for now, but his two cars have been repossessed.

"Jobs collapsed. They was going down in 2005. Everything was going downhill," Williams said. "It's hard to get a job anywhere."

Williams' voice reflected his frustration. He didn't think he'd be here at this point. He's appreciative of his job at the garden and has nothing but praise for those who have helped him land the temporary job. But he thought decades of hard work, including serving his country, would lead to a more steady income. A more prosperous life.

He has stayed out of trouble with the law and doesn't do drugs. He credits moving as a boy from East St. Louis to Kentucky to live with his grandmother.

"I was going the wrong way. I could have been a killer. A bully. That was the predicted path for me."

St. Patrick Connection

Shawn M. Thomason, who oversees the Go! Green program, said struggling veterans have various support services available to them, but finding a job is the priority.

"It all boils down to finding and maintaining employment," Thompson said.

Jim Schulte, vice president of Horstmann Brothers, a landscaping company, said his partnership with St. Patrick Center has been successful. By providing in-field training as part of the program, Schulte said the company can tell early on who would make a good employee.

He points to Phil Gundlach, 44, an Air Force vet.

"Phil has a talent. It's not necessarily a talent in the green industry," Schulte said. "But it's his work ethic, his ability to work hard, to be on time, all the basics of being a good employee. That's not something you can teach."

Gundlach has been working for Horstmann about three months. Manufacturing jobs dried up as the economy tanked, and Gundlach found himself unemployed. Struggling financially, he lives in transitional housing run by the Salvation Army.

He said the landscaping job provides good training, and broadening his experience will help him land a permanent job.

Williams started working in May in the garden's plastic pot recycling program before moving to maintain the lush grounds. It's great to work at a place so accepting, he said.

"It seems like I knew everybody the day I started," Williams said. "I just fit in wherever I go."

But he knows all good things come to an end. Notably jobs labeled as temporary. His supervisors said they want to keep him on but cannot guarantee a permanent spot.

Williams is not resigning himself to a life of temporary jobs. He has children and grandchildren to support. And a fight to keep his house. Still, he wonders:

"Is this my place in life?"

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