James Lofton, the homeless man who helped prevent a woman from jumping off the Monona Terrace rooftop in June, has a new identity.
That’s because he’s no longer homeless.
Through the combined efforts of Madison’s Housing Operations unit and the U.S. departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, Lofton now lives in a one-bedroom apartment on the East Side.
“It feels great,” said Lofton, 46, sitting in the recliner in his new living room. “I knew I’d get a place eventually.”
But it might not have happened had Lofton not responded to a call for help in June.
A woman who had met with Sadie Villegas at the Community Development Authority left the Municipal Building and headed toward Monona Terrace. Villegas, concerned about the woman’s state of mind, followed her as she approached the rooftop railing.
When the woman’s intentions became obvious, Villegas grabbed her and started screaming for help.
Lofton, who was sitting nearby reading, was the only one to respond. He helped Villegas pull the woman back to safety and hold her until police arrived.
For their efforts, Lofton and Villegas received Madison Police Department Life Saving Awards.
“There were a lot of people up on the roof, and they just sat around,” Lofton said. “They didn’t get up; they didn’t do anything. It’s just my nature. You see somebody in trouble, you try to help.”
That was the same approach taken by Tom Conrad, the city’s Section 8 supervisor, when he became aware that Lofton was a veteran and homeless.
Conrad immediately saw Lofton as a candidate for the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program and put him in contact with local VA officials.
Since the program started here in 2009, the city has been able to find housing for 85 vets, and Conrad said 25 more vouchers have been allocated to bring the total to 110 by this winter.
One of the vets assisted by VASH now is on the staff and is a peer support worker for others in the program.
Conrad said federal officials report that the number of homeless vets has been cut in half since the program’s inception. But Lofton was not even on their radar screen because he hadn’t been receiving VA services.
“I have to admit that when I met James and realized he was a vet, I got angry,” Conrad said. “It’s satisfying now to sit here on his couch, but I was really, really mad this summer. Why was this happening? Here we have this program, and he’s still sitting out in front of our building.
“But it is really satisfying to see him here now. I just feel like things are starting to look up.”
Conrad said the key to the program’s success is the partnership between federal and local entities. HUD provides rent assistance, the VA provides support services and city officials evaluate the veteran’s income, set the subsidy and pay the landlord.
“We’re hoping this might be a model for fighting homelessness in general,” Conrad said. “You can’t just give people a voucher and send them off to go fend for themselves and find their way out of
homelessness. It’s better to take a team approach.”
Ideally, Conrad said, “James’ income will go so high that he doesn’t qualify for any subsidy anymore.
“In the meantime, the program can stick with him for as long as he needs help with his rent.”
Lofton said he has applied for several jobs in recent weeks and is hoping to be working soon. He said job hunting is a lot easier when you’ve got a home.
“The biggest problem when you’re applying for jobs is what do you do with all your stuff,” he said. “Employers tend to frown on you when you come in with a whole bunch of stuff.”
Lofton, who was in the Army for 10 years and served in the Middle East, Bosnia and Germany, had been homeless for three years after losing his job. He primarily worked on generators for the Army.
While he’s not particularly comfortable in the spotlight that came with his heroics, Lofton is thankful he could help the woman. He was the first person to visit her in the hospital.
“It was fate,” Lofton said. “I’ve made quite a few friends out of that. She got all the help she needed. And it helped me get this place.”