TAMPA, Fla. (WTSP) – Ron Lillard is an Army veteran who served in Iraq when he was active duty. Now out of the military, he serves on the front lines of another battle: waging war against veteran homelessness in Tampa Bay.
“I don’t actually think of this as work, it’s just something that I get excited about doing every single day,” said Lillard one May afternoon in his office at Tampa Crossroads. “This is my passion. This is what wakes me up every day. Being able to go out there and make a difference in the life of a veteran and being able to serve people who served so bravely for our country, it’s a joy.”
Tampa Crossroads is a veteran’s assistance center that works to get homeless veterans off the streets and into affordable housing. Once vets are placed in housing, the organization continues to work with them, giving them the resources and wrap-around services many veterans need to succeed on their own.
“We provide employment services, we help veterans with their resumes, we help veterans apply for disability, whether it’s social security or VA pension disability, we help them apply for healthcare if needed, we help them with identification. Anything that a veteran could need we basically assist them with,” said Lillard. “Whatever issue that they might have, we’re going to house them and we’re going to try to work on those issues after the fact. We don’t want a veteran to be homeless out there on the streets when they’re still working on issues. We’re going to get you off the streets, get you into housing and then try to link you to those services and try to assist you, and we find that we have much better success in doing that.”
“We’re slipping through the gaps. There’s too many guys, too many women and men, in this country, that served this country honorably that are falling through the gaps,” said Antonio Johnson, a Navy veteran who faced homelessness until he got help from Crossroads. Johnson says there’s not enough awareness about the organization and all it does for veterans.
“The problem is the word is not out on Crossroads, it really isn’t. This is like a sleeper cell of countless things that can happen for people that need help. If we can get the word out about this place, the more the merrier,” said Johnson. “It’s a lot of guys that I see down in my counseling that could use this help. They say, ‘What? What? I’ve never heard of that.’ I understand. Me either, until I got here.”
And it’s not just awareness that Tampa Crossroads needs to build. Being a grant-funded organization Crossroads has many needs, the largest being a network of private landlords in the Tampa Bay area who are willing to work with the program to give homeless veterans access to affordable housing.
“We need private landlords that’s willing to take a chance on our veterans, even though they have background issues or they have barriers whether it’s eviction or past-due judgments,” said Lillard. “To give them a chance at housing when they’re being turned down after they apply at a regular apartment complex where you and I might apply for housing.”
On top of that, Tampa Crossroads provides countless services to help veterans maintain their housing once they’ve been placed.
“We provide employment services, we help veterans with their resumes, we help veterans apply for disability, whether it’s social security or VA pension disability, we help them apply for healthcare if-needed, we help them with identification. Anything that a veteran could need we basically assist them with,” said Lillard. “We rely on local food pantries but the food pantries only provide dry and canned goods, they don’t provide any meats and things like that. We need assistance with veterans with transportation issues, we need gas cards for veterans that might not have that much income and they need to look for work in order to keep their housing or they gas in order to get back and forth to their VA appointments.”
And even once he helps them find jobs, Lillard goes back to check on the veterans while they’re on their own to make sure they are thriving.
“He pretty much rebooted my life,” said one veteran, a single father of two who not only got his housing through Tampa Crossroads but also got a job with the Fix Car Center, an auto shop that employs veterans. “Without him, we’d be in a homeless shelter still, and that was last July.”
“Oh, my God, that’s my angel right there. Whenever I see him, something good happens,” said Air Force veteran Randy Levell, who got an apartment with Lillard’s help after living on a park bench in Ybor City. “This is a godsend. It is, it really is. I mean, it will take a vet from down walking status to walking back tall, like I had my uniform back on.”