Army veteran Willie Shirden was battling homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction for years while living on the streets of St. Louis, where he said he was often awakened by the sounds of gunshots or police sirens.

“I was pretty miserable in St. Louis,” Shirden said. “Sometimes I got lucky if a shelter had a bed, but a lot of times I slept on the streets or anywhere I could find a place to lay my head.”

From 1965 to 1967, Shirden said, he served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the first major unit of the U.S. Army to serve in Vietnam. He got hooked on alcohol while in the military and turned to drugs while in Washington, D.C.

After trying different addiction services with no success, he came across a pamphlet from HOUSE Inc., an alcohol and addiction recovery center in Joplin. He moved here in January 2019 and began receiving treatment at the center.

“That’s where my journey started,” he said. “That led me to where I’m at now. I’m so blessed and happy that I came here (Joplin). They have a great support system that I need.”

Shirden is the first tenant of the Joplin Bungalows, a housing development for senior citizens and veterans, including those who are disabled. The Joplin Bungalows feature eight studio homes, and 11 one-bedroom homes, fully furnished.

The Joplin Bungalows, located at 26th Street and McCoy Avenue, is a partnership between the city of Joplin, the Economic Security Corporation of Southwest Area and several other entities. The Joplin Redevelopment Corp., which served as the city’s land bank after the 2011 tornado, owned property on 26th Street that the ESC purchased for the housing project.

It opened this week after officials broke ground in March 2019. Federal grant money paid for the project.

“Ending veteran homelessness and providing affordable housing for seniors on a fixed or reduced income remain priorities for HUD,” Jason Mohr, regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in a statement. “Joplin Bungalows will provide safe, affordable housing for seniors, and a place for homeless veterans to call home.”

A new life

Shirden said the housing opportunity has opened his eyes to a brand-new life. He was able to find God and additional recovery services at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, which is down the street from his new home. Shirden has been sober and drug-free for more than a year.

“That’s the main source of my recovery,” he said. “I’ve put my faith in God. There’s a lot of things happening for me. I’ve got this place. I don’t have the urge to do anything like that. I have more positive stuff on my mind. My whole life has changed. I’m talking to my family, and they’re happy for me. Things are going really well for me right now.”

The first day in his new one-bedroom housing unit was Monday, and Sheridan said it gives him the opportunity to focus on bigger things. Instead of looking for a safe place to sleep, he’s browsing the grocery store aisles for food he never had the chance to eat before.

“When I was at the shelter, I ate what they gave me, no matter what they gave me,” he said. “There were a lot of nights where cold bologna sandwiches were the best that I could do. Don’t get me wrong — they kept me from starving to death. But now I’m prepared to make better decisions than I used to make. I don’t forget the past because if you do, you’ll probably relive it. I take a look back at it and move forward.”

St. Paul’s United Methodist Church provided “Welcome to the Neighborhood” baskets and the Elks Lodge Women’s Auxiliary donated “Welcome Home” bags. Shirden said it’s been a nice change of pace to have a place to call his own.

“This feels so good, and I’m elated,” he said. “Everything’s coming up roses right now. It’s the best I’ve felt in years.”

News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction and Webb City.

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