SUNDAY EDITION | ‘The face of why we do this’: Homeless veteran - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | ‘The face of why we do this’: Homeless veteran tried to shake addiction, crime

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LOUISVILLE, Ky., (WDRB) – “Do you think anyone will come to your funeral?” a documentary film crew asked Warren Gregory Young, a homeless veteran.

“No, probably not,” Young responded in “Potter’s Field,” a 2013 film that chronicled people living on the streets when they die.

“But here’s the deal though,” Young said. He appeared to be intoxicated and holding a drink wrapped in a brown paper bag. Because he had been an Army staff sergeant, Young said he would be buried in a military cemetery and “hopefully everyone will know I’m a veteran.”

Young was right.

And wrong.

In the next four years, Young repeatedly tried to turn his life around, with the help of court officials, Louisville Metro Police, social workers and a coalition of local organizations and government agencies.

When he died of a heart attack at the age of 49 on April 17, he was off the streets, employed and living in his own home – even as he worked to get sober and stay out of trouble.

Before he was buried in Kentucky Veterans Cemetery in Radcliff, about 100 people attended his funeral, including friends from high school, college, social workers, law enforcement and court officials.

What likely would have shocked him even more is what happened in the days after the funeral.Those who dealt with him when he was at his worst -- as he racked up hundreds of charges, including assaulting a police officer -- held an extraordinary hearing in Jefferson District Court to remember Young, whose life ended just as it seemed he was finally turning it around.

“Warren G. made an impression on all of us,” Jefferson District Court Judge Stephanie Burke told those assembled to remember Young when his pending cases were officially dismissed on April 21. “He for a long time was our project. We all did things to go way beyond … to see that he made it. And there was something about him that stuck with all of us. … He is the face of why we do this.”

Young was considered by some to be a (mostly) successful example of what is often a long, arduous and often ill-fated process: Taking homeless, addicted veteran off the streets and getting their lives back on track.

When he died, Young had found a home with help from a program designed by Mayor Greg Fischer and The Coalition for the Homeless to eliminate veteran homelessness in Louisville. He was speaking with veterans on the street about how his life had been changed.

“I saw him as a success story even though it was a long, gradual process,” Judge Burke said in an interview. “It was heartbreaking to feel like when we had finally reached a success with someone and then have an illness cruelly take him away.”

"Life is Hell"
After he showed “Potter’s Field” filmmakers his floppy, crumbling shoes, Young was asked how he ended up going from the Army to living on the streets.

At Male High School, where Young graduated in 1985, he played several sports, wrote for the newspaper and was vice president of his class during his junior year.

But there wasn’t a clear answer to the filmmakers’ question. Young said he had some family issues and couldn’t blend back into society after returning home.

“I would like to think that a lot of persons who went through what I went through maybe could have handled it better,” Young said in the documentary. “War is Hell. Life is Hell for me right now.”

He said he made a camp for himself each night and panhandled for food and alcohol.

Young said he was “still trying to adjust” after serving overseas, including in the Persian Gulf,but didn’t see much hope for the future even though “I’m the ultimate optimist.”

His sister said he had difficulty holding a job and had addiction and untreated mental issues.

Young bounced in and out of jail often weekly – racking up about 180 court cases in all - most of the time getting arrested for having alcohol, being intoxicated in public and aggressively panhandling.

“He was an unbelievably nice guy when he was sober,” said former 5th division LMPD Officer Allan Wolf, who now works as an instructor at the state police training academy. Wolf recalled arresting Young numerous times, but also stopping to talk to him when he was sober.

Young was “laid back. Charming. But he self-medicated. And when he got intoxicated, he would get belligerent, violent. … There were two different sides to Warren,” Wolf said.

And even when he was in bad shape, Young would still join his family for Sunday dinner, said Heather Sutton, his younger sister.

“I would fix him plates to go with him and he would actually get out of the vehicle and hand his plates of food to other people who were out on the streets because he had already consumed food for the day and he wanted to share that love with other people,” Sutton said.

When Young’s pending cases were called in Jefferson District Court on April 21, in what Judge Burke acknowledged was an “unusual circumstance,” she asked people to talk about the person they knew before his addictions.

Local attorney Gregory Troutman, who attended Male High School with Young, described his friend as a huge Beatles fan, a superior athlete, a reporter for the school newspaper and a generous soul widely admired by his classmates.

“Even though he had changed, in many respects he was the same person,” said Troutman, who reunited with Young in recent years. “War is Hell and unfortunately for Warren, his Hell didn’t end when he walked off the battlefield. It followed him back to Louisville. I’m just sad that we ran out of time.”

Jay Blanton, a communications director at the University of Kentucky and former cross country teammate at Male, sent a message read during the hearing saying Young’s “joy and openness  made everyone part of the team.”

“Warren was one of the guys everybody in high school loved,” Blanton later said in an interview. “Everybody loved to be around Warren.”

Veterans' courts expand
Young was one of the early participants in Jefferson County's Veterans Court, which in 2012 became Kentucky’s first treatment court  for veterans who break the law while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, brain injury or mental illness.

The court uses specialized treatment to address the needs of veterans who struggle after returning home from Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat.

Six other counties have added similar courts, and next month the U.S. District Court in Louisville will start its own program, with five initial participants. It will be the first federal Veterans Court in Kentucky.

“There are lots of Warrens that come through that system,” said Sonny Hatfield, a Veterans Affairs justice outreach specialist who helps find veterans for the court and connect them with VA services.

But only a fraction of veterans who are referred to the program actually graduates. It takes a minimum of 18 months to complete for felony cases and 15 months for misdemeanors, with an average of about two years from start to finish.

Across the state, 124 defendants have entered veterans’ courts, with 24 thus far successfully completing the program – less than 20 percent – though some are still working their way through, according to records provided by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

“It’s a rigorous program,” said Jefferson District Court Judge David Holton, who presides over Veterans Court. “It’s intended to be challenging. It’s your last chance before you go to jail or prison for a long time and you have to be serious about accomplishing your recovery and getting your life back together.”

In Jefferson County, eight defendants have graduated from Veterans Court. Jefferson County's program was initially funded for three years through a $350,000 federal grant. After concerns that the courts would have to dump several programs because of budget issues, the final budget included state funds each year to keep the court running.

“Men and women who have laid their lives on the line for our country deserve a chance to get their lives back,” Holton said. “If anyone deserves a second chance, it’s our veterans.”

The veterans often work with mentors who have been through the program, get drug tests, attend counseling and post-traumatic stress treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

There are about 20 active participants in Jefferson County, with four scheduled to graduate in June.

Young never made it to the end of the program. He was kicked out in 2013 after being charged with a violent offense.

“Warren was a very personable person, a very likable guy, who you wanted to root for,” Holton said. “You pulled for him to get his life together. There were times I really thought he was on the right track. Warren had served in combat and his scars were so deep that he was never able to comply for very long at all before he found himself in trouble again.”

"I'll be alright"
But court officials, police, local organizations and government agencies didn’t give up on Young.

In 2015, Young found a place to live – a furnished apartment -- through an initiative titled Rx: Housing Veterans, designed by Mayor Greg Fischer and The Coalition for the Homeless, The Robley Rex VA Hospital and others in an effort to end veteran homelessness in Louisville.

Young was one of 800 homeless veterans who were put in homes in 2015, said Catherine McGeeney, the coalition’s director of development.

In November, Louisville’s population of homeless veterans reached “functional zero,” meaning all identified homeless veterans had access to permanent housing.

“It’s a huge accomplishment,” McGeeney said, although she cautioned that, on average, a veteran becomes homeless in Louisville every day.

The goal is to find them housing within 30 days and then work on all of their other issues, she said, adding that it is much easier to solve other problems if a person is off the streets.

Sutton, Young’s younger sister, said she saw her brother change when he got an apartment.

“He would joke that he had to learn how to not live on the streets,” she said.  “He really took pride in the way that his life was heading. Totally turned his life around.”

And the last time he came before Judge Burke in court, in September 2015, that seemed to be true.

“How long have you been clean?” Burke asked, according to a video of the hearing.

“Seventy-five days,” Young said, smiling. “I knew you were going to ask that and I was ready for you.”

After Young pleaded guilty to misdemeanor criminal trespassing and theft, Burke wished Young well and told him she had “never been so happy to see someone standing before me clean. It’s been a really, really long time coming. ”

“Thank you judge,” Young said. “I’ll be alright.”

His troubles didn’t end completely. Court records show he was arrested after that court hearing on intoxication charges.

But family and friends say Young was steadfast that he wouldn’t waste the opportunities given to him.

Interviewed four years after the “Potter’s Field” documentary in a 2015 video produced by the Coalition for the Homeless, a sober and healthy looking Young said his goals in life had changed.

“When I was homeless, I was looking for my next beer and how I was going to panhandle to get that,” he said. “Now I’m looking for a job and trying to plan my life out.”

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