Phoenix veteran received assistance to get back on his feet. He now wants to help others do the same

When veteran Richard Dawson enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve, he was only 17 years old. Inspired by his father, a correctional officer, Dawson aimed to continue the legacy of service. He later joined as a military police officer and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It's not just about the law enforcement aspect of it. It's about the community,” explained the veteran.

Dawson characterized his military service as dangerous and intense. However, it was upon his return home that he found civilian life challenging. Despite the difficulties, he eventually managed to overcome those challenges with the help of various organizations. The trouble started when Dawson finished his service and headed back home, he said.

Initially, housing was not a problem as he moved in with his mom in Long Island. However, after the initial relief of being back home with family wore off, Dawson began to feel out of place. Since he was not originally from New York, his mom became the only person he could confide in. The process of transitioning back to normal life also proved to be challenging for him.

“So with that stress, with the depression, anxiety, not China, not able to find work. It all just started to pile on,” explained the veteran. “Yeah. And I needed a full kind of readjustment.”

Dawson thought a change of scenery might help. A friend of his from the military helped him move to Phoenix, but Dawson’s mental health issues persisted.

“I didn't have a change in my mindset yet. I carried that even over here to Phoenix,” he said. “So things didn't pan out when I first moved out here.”

U.S. VETS to the rescue

Facing unemployment and without family in the area, Dawson found himself homeless. Without a car or even a tent to sleep in, he was able to receive assistance after just one day.

The Phoenix Rescue Mission connected Dawson with the nonprofit U.S. VETS, which supported him in finding employment and adapting to civilian life. Thanks to the organization's help, Dawson was able to regain stability.

“I moved out on my own. Then I even started going to school,” explained the vet, who received funding through the GI Bill.

In 2018, Dawson was hired by U.S. VETS to help people who are in the same position he was. As a case manager, Dawson helps veterans find employment, housing, and mental health resources. Getting veterans to open up about their struggles can take some time, he said.

“In my opinion, I'd rather wait for them to open up,” Dawson said. “I'm not going to pressure them to poke and prod. I want to go at their pace. Because what they're going through is not a race, and I tell almost all my veterans this: you're not going through a race and all this it's a marathon and you're kind of planning for your future.”

Dawson said he harbors zero anger or resentment over being homeless despite serving his country in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dawson also thinks the Department of Veterans Affairs has improved a lot in the last decade.

“They've made drastic changes with working with veterans,” he said. “I know there are a lot of past incidents here in Phoenix that have been readjusted. I don't have anything I would change right now.”

Despite the challenges, Dawson still enjoys sharing heartwarming anecdotes of his time in the military. While on deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said one of his favorite things to do was give the local children gifts like teddy bears.

Dawson would feel a tinge of regret each time he left a station, especially when he would witness locals “crying their eyes out” on departure day.

“We were almost like that supportive family for them when going out on patrols, getting to know the local nationals, either in Iraq or Afghanistan. And that was very rewarding as well,” Dawson said.

Dawson and his comrades even made time for the occasional practical joke.

“On our way back, we kind of played a joke on one of our team leaders, because we were moving almost as a whole platoon,” he said. “And we told them there was a clown on a single-wheel bike in a certain corner. And he kept looking for it and actually called our company because he could not find him.”

Dawson said he will celebrate this Veterans Day at Chili's, which he maintains is the best place to go for the holiday.

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What resources are available for homeless vets?

Dawson's story is all too common. According to the latest data from Veterans Affairs, there were an estimated 33,136 homeless veterans in January 2022. Multiple nonprofits and government agencies are dedicated to helping homeless veterans in the Valley.

Veterans Affairs has a community resource and referral center at 1500 E. Thomas Road, Suite 106, Phoenix.

Jeff Willgale, the center coordinator, can be reached at 602-248-6040 or

According to the VA’s website, Willgale can help veterans access:

  • Immediate food and shelter, including both transitional and permanent housing.

  • Job training, life skills development, and education.

  • Support with justice system navigation and community re-entry from jail.

  • Financial support to prevent homelessness.

  • Treatment for addiction and depression.

  • Health and dental care.

Veterans First, located at 8433 N. Black Canyon Highway, Suite 164, Phoenix, educates veterans on resources that suit their specific needs. The organization's “Hand-Up” Program assists with rent, emergency housing, bus passes, gas, hygiene items, and food.

Homeless veterans also can use all of the resources provided by Phoenix’s Office of Homeless Solutions.

How can people help?

Catholic Charities MANA House was founded in 2008 by 14 vets who were homeless in Phoenix. The group provides transitional housing to veterans and currently needs:

  • New or gently used twin-size fitted and flat sheets.

  • New standard-sized pillows.

  • Laundry soap pods.

  • New or gently used plates, bowls and cups.

  • New or gently used silverware.

  • New or gently used men’s jeans and shorts size S – M.

  • New shower shoes size 9-13

  • Toothpaste 6 ounces.

  • Shampoo/conditioner 13 ounces.

  • Travel-size hygiene items.

  • Bottled water.

  • Ground coffee.

  • New men’s underwear.

  • Cleaning supplies.

  • Laundry baskets.

  • Adult diapers size S – XL.

  • New or gently used tennis shoes.

Catholic Charities also needs volunteers for several of its programs, including its food pantry program and after-school program for veterans' children.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How to find help for veterans in the Phoenix area