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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

After two years, a death in the shadows shines light on homelessness in Historic Triangle

An undated photo of Thomas Jerry Millirons (Courtesy Fred Liggin IV)
An undated photo of Thomas Jerry Millirons (Courtesy Fred Liggin IV)

Two years ago on April 25, police found 50-year-old Thomas Jerry Millirons deceased behind a Zaxby’s restaurant in Williamsburg.

Nicknamed “Tommy,” Millirons was homeless, fighting alcoholism, and had just moved out of a makeshift camp in the woods behind the Williamsburg Crossing shopping center on John Tyler Highway.

He was also seven months sober, loved riding his bicycle for miles and was deeply embedded in the Williamsburg faith community, his friends said.

Millirons is remembered as a generous, loyal and hardworking man with signature curly red hair and glasses, but he has also left an enduring legacy that is changing the way local leaders address homelessness, poverty and addiction.

“You can’t do it the same way and expect something new,” said Millirons’ friend Fred Liggin, pastor of the Williamsburg Christian Church. Liggin is also the founder of 3e Restoration, a Williamsburg nonprofit that supports individuals experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty through relational and holistic services.

For Liggin, Millirons’ legacy has inspired him to revamp the support system for people who are homeless, fighting addiction or in poverty – people like Millirons, who heal through community involvement and relationships with others.

Story of hurt and hard work

Millirons died unexpectedly at a camp he had previously lived in behind Williamsburg Crossing. He had been living off the street since he became sober seven months earlier, but returned to his camp after a discouraging visit with a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist told Millirons that “a relapse to alcohol was imminent and that after he ‘falls off the wagon,’ he could come back and get the proper medications he needed,” Liggin said in a 2015 article.

“This was the one time there was no talking about it,” Liggin said.

Liggin does not blame the psychiatrist in Millirons’ death, but is critical of the policies and procedures designed to keep organizations “alive,” which can overshadow the humanity in treating addictions and combating homelessness, he said.

“Tommy’s death did light some different fires positively, and we are pressing on to do everything … we can to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again,” Liggin said. “That’s the daily work. Tommy is not forgotten.”

Whether the new system will be a program, facility, curriculum or something else is still undecided, but the goal is to incorporate all resources, including faith-based and social services programs, to heal people physically, emotionally, cognitively, socially and spiritually.

When completely developed, the project will be named in honor of Millirons, Liggin said. The project should take shape in the upcoming two or three years, he added.

“Tommy’s narrative isn’t unique. Tommy himself was unique, but his story – the story of hurt and homelessness and hard work – is something that we see in many others,” Liggin said. “What helped Tommy be sober was the community.”

Thomas Jerry Millirons died April 22, 2015, after enduring homelessness and addiction for years. When he died, the Williamsburg Christian Church held his funeral.(Courtesy Fred Liggin IV)
Thomas Jerry Millirons died April 22, 2015, after enduring homelessness and addiction for years. When he died, the Williamsburg Christian Church held his funeral.(Courtesy Fred Liggin IV)

To honor a life, even in death

Millirons died just 12 months after being baptized, and one week before his 51st birthday.

“It’s not focusing on behavioral management, but rather holistic, systemic change within the person,” Liggin said.

“I’ve never had a death impact me to the degree that that one did, in terms of friends,” Liggin said.

From a police perspective, Millirons’ death is a reminder of their role in putting people in touch with services they need.

“Any time we come across a person who is homeless or a person who has needs, we try to do what we can to put them in touch with resources to meet those needs,” James City County Police Deputy Chief Steve Rubino said.

According to data provided by the volunteer organization Hands Together Historic Triangle, there were at least 90 homeless residents of James City County last year and at least 350 homeless students in the Williamsburg James City County school district.

The county’s police department now works with Community of Faith Mission and area churches to provide cold weather shelter for people living through homelessness.

Millirons also inspired Williamsburg Christian Church to start a burial fund for people who die while homeless and without family or a support system.

The fund pays for the funeral and burial, a practice that started with Millirons’ death.

Churches in the Greater Williamsburg area came together after Millirons death, with a Saint Bede Catholic Church member donating a space for his ashes at the Catholic church’s columbarium in Williamsburg.

“To honor their life, we will honor them in their death,” Liggin said.

Fearing can be reached at sarah.f@localvoicemedia.com.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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