Louis Dean, left, shakes the hand of one of the veterans in the Stephon’s House transitional housing program, which helps to get homeless veterans back on their feet. Program director Vivian Hughes looks on. (Special Photo: Stan Coleman)
FOREST PARK — When Vivian Hughes retired from the Georgia Department of Corrections after 39 years of service, she wanted to find another way to contribute to her Clayton County community.
She considered using her retirement money to fund housing for former inmates, but a suggestion from her fiance Louis Dean changed her mind.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you work with veterans?’” Hughes recalled. The suggestion seemed fitting, as many of Hughes’s family members served in the Army, and Dean’s family served in the military as well. But she had to do a little research on how to support veterans, specifically those who were homeless and without work.
“I know everything about corrections, but I didn’t know anything about veterans,” she said.
After speaking with several local veterans organizations, Hughes put her retirement money towards renting and furnishing 15 apartments and one house in Forest Park. For the past two years, Hughes has housed homeless veterans and helped them to get back on their feet, finding them meaningful work and long-term housing.
To date, 30 veterans are housed in Hughes’s program. Six have left to lead successful lives locally and in places as far-flung as Florida and Louisiana.
She named the organization Stephon’s House in memory of her brother Stephon Cushion, an Army veteran who was murdered in 2013 during a home invasion.
“He was military and he gave so much to the community,” Hughes said. “When he lost his life, I said this is the perfect way to honor him.”
Hughes said much of her work she’s had to learn as she goes, relying on guidance from established programs like Hope Atlanta, Another Chance and Fort McPherson VA Clinic. Though much of the funding comes from her own pocket, Hughes has sought help from local organizations. Last year, she connected with Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson at a breakfast for local ministries.
“From then on, she has been a blessing to our organization,” Hughes said of Lawson. The District Attorney’s Office has provided rent, food and small home furnishings, including toasters and dishes, to the organization this year.
Lawson’s office hosted a Christmas luncheon for Stephon’s House residents on Dec. 10 at the Forest Park Senior Center. Veterans were treated to a full meal catered by Big Daddy’s Dish on Old National Highway in Atlanta.
DA’s office staff loaded up plates with turkey, ham, and other traditional holiday fare. Lawson, Hughes and Dean also handed out scarves, gloves and a $20 gift card to Chick-fil-A to each veteran.
Though each of Stephon’s House’s 30 residents were invited, not all could attend the dinner, so to-go meals were prepared for veterans who were ill or working.
Shavon Hagger, director of program development and services in the DA’s office, said her office was more than willing to dish up some holiday cheer.
“They served our country and worked hard, and they have fallen on hard times, so we can definitely help them out,” she said.
“I’m not going no where,” she told the district attorney’s office, with a laugh. “They said, ‘Neither are we.’”