FORT MYERS, Fla.- A 61-year-old Vietnam veteran says the Department of Veterans Affairs abandoned him and left him homeless.
For Billy Croft, June 1 was a day he never thought would come. It was the day Croft finally felt he had a home, although it was a long road to get to that point.
Croft joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17 years old. At 18, he went over to Vietnam and served 13 months.
In 2008, Croft was diagnosed with emphysema and went under the VA’s care.
“My lungs were really scarred, I had trouble breathing,” Croft said.
From there, Croft said his health only got worse.
“Since then, it’s been medication, doctors, psych, hospitals.”
After being admitted into the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center near Tampa in April, Croft said a VA social worker lined up what he thought would be a permanent place to live, an assisted living facility in Sarasota called Lamplight.
Croft says he signed the release papers but later discovered the facility he was supposed to go to wanted more money than he could afford, something he says he didn’t realize until the VA dropped him off at his new home.
Croft was confused, saying his social worker told him she’d worked out a deal to fit his budget, but a worker at Lamplight said there was no deal.
A spokesperson for the VA said the social worker did work with the 61-year-old to find a proper facility.
“The Veteran was assisted with his discharge plan by the social worker on the unit. After discussing several housing options with Veteran, he decided to pursue placement at Lamplight ALF,” the VA said in a statement. “Working closely with his social worker, the Veteran directed the process. A copy of the ALF contract was sent to the VA and Veteran reviewed each page with his social worker. After review, he was agreeable to the content of the contract and subsequently signed the paperwork.”
The VA says there was “no indication Billy was dissatisfied.”
Yet Croft says they didn’t go over finances and he merely agreed with what the social worker said, adding a “social worker set this all up.”
A spokesperson for the VA said, “On behalf of the Veteran, the social worker did facilitate calls between the ALF and the Veteran. During these calls, facility costs, rules and regulations were discussed and this information relayed to the Veteran directly.”
Croft explained without enough money for his new home, he was homeless, and the VA told him they wouldn’t take him back.
“‘We can’t do that, once you sign them papers you’re on your own.’ That’s the exact words they told me,” Croft said.
Croft was forced to go to a nearby motel.
“I emptied my back account and maxed out my overdraft,” Croft said, adding he felt abandoned by the VA. “I mean, I was like you just signed my damn death warrant.”
The VA claims it did call Croft a cab after he said he wanted to leave but the veteran says he called the cab himself and paid for it.
A VA spokesperson added Croft could not go back to the C.W. Bill Young Center because “the veteran no longer required hospitalization as there was no longer a clinical need.”
The VA also says they are unable to speak specifically to what took place at the Lamplight, saying the issue is between Croft and the facility. A spokesperson for Lamplight would not comment on the situation.
The VA later came up with what sounded like a solution for Croft, a veteran facility in Bradenton. But when Croft got there, the facility wouldn’t let him in, so he ended up checking himself in to another hotel.
A VA spokesperson said this did happen, adding “On May 13, the Veteran was transported by a volunteer organization to Veterans Village in Bradenton, Fla. – a transitional housing facility operated by Volunteers of America (VOA). Due to the Veteran’s need for oxygen and potential dangers associated with the tank, VOA denied Mr. Croft’s placement shortly after his arrival. This decision was made based on guidance from the supplier of the Veteran’s oxygen tanks. Originally, VOA communicated that they could accommodate the Veteran’s need for oxygen.”
Finally, weeks after being released from the hospital, someone at the Cape Coral VA got involved with Croft’s situation and called Don Payton with Hearts and Homes for Veterans in Lee County. The organization works to keep veterans off the streets.
“He was in terrible shape. I didn’t even think he’d last a week,” said Payton of when he first saw Croft. “He had no money, no place to go, one change of clothes.”
For 20 days, Payton paid for Croft to stay in a Motel 6 in North Fort Myers.
“Nobody should be discounted like that,” Payton said.
Hearts and Homes worked with a homeless outreach coordinator from the Cape VA and found more permanent housing, an assisted living home in Lehigh Acres. The organization paid $500 for his entrance fee.
When Croft thinks of Don, he says “he literally saved my god damn life. He’s just being modest.”