Wednesday, July 6, 2022

‘A black hole’: One businessman’s climb out of homelessness in Williamsburg

Collins Blaha, 61, speaks about his experience with homelessness in Greater Williamsburg during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day ceremony Dec. 21, 2018. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Collins Blaha, 61, speaks about his experience with homelessness in Greater Williamsburg during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day ceremony Dec. 21, 2018. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

For several years, Collins Blaha, 61, has held on to a grainy photograph of himself sitting in the booth of a Mexican restaurant in Williamsburg.

At first glance, Blaha in the 2014 photograph is hardly recognizable compared to the bright-eyed man he is now. In the photo, he weighs about 165 pounds and has a gaunt, scruffy face. A small sliver of white peeks out from the edge of his loose black shirt collar: a bandage covering a dialysis port, he said.

One thing about Blaha is the same — a trademark tan VCU Rams baseball cap.

On Wednesday, a healthier Blaha sat in the Starbucks on Monticello Avenue, cupping a venti frappuccino and resting his elbows on the table near a black leather padfolio and the same VCU baseball cap.

Taking an occasional pause and gazing out the coffee shop’s front window, Blaha recounted the months he spent in homeless in Virginia’s colonial capital.

“I find that some people, they don’t see the humanity behind the homeless,” Blaha said. “They don’t see human beings — human beings that are hurting.”

Blaha slept in a shelter for nearly a year, and is one of hundreds of people on the Virginia Peninsula who have experienced homelessness.

The Greater Virginia Peninsula Homelessness Consortium counted 439 Peninsula residents living in homelessness during the 2018 Point in Time Count.

The consortium is a group of public and private organizations working to end homelessness in Williamsburg, James City County, York County, Hampton, Newport News and Poquoson.

Local leaders have said putting a specific number on those who are homeless in the Historic Triangle is a difficult task.

Collins Blaha, 61, became homeless after falling ill in 2014. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Collins Blaha, 61, became homeless after falling ill in 2014. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Alone

Before he became homeless, Blaha worked professionally in real estate and as an assistant manager in the restaurant industry.

Blaha fell ill in 2014, and life began to fall apart.

His kidneys and other organs were failing from untreated high blood pressure, culminating in six days in the intensive care unit of a local hospital.

In his late 50s, Blaha was placed on dialysis for six hours at a time, three days a week. Blaha was unable to work because of dialysis, and soon lost his job, apartment and car one by one.

Blaha no longer needed dialysis after his kidneys healed themselves — the 61-year-old calls it a “miracle.”

He spent nearly a year sheltered by Community of Faith Mission, a nonprofit that operates a nightly winter emergency shelter at area churches. There, he was connected with Williamsburg Christian Church Pastor Fred Liggin, who founded 3e Restoration, a faith-based nonprofit that supports those living through homelessness and extreme poverty.

Liggin was Blaha’s servant leader coordinator through 3e Restoration, a friend who “walks with” those experiencing homelessness.

Blaha has lived in an apartment for more than three years with assistance from 3e Restoration, despite an eviction on his record. The nonprofit also helped him secure a job by providing him with clean clothes and a hotel room to shower and shave in.

He says he is “99 percent” out of the woods, but is “always going to carry a little baggage.”

‘Hand up, not a hand out’

While he “hates cliches,” Blaha said the key to getting out of homelessness is to have a support system.

“I had some setbacks … I made some short-term decisions,” Blaha said. “They picked me up, dusted me off, and said let’s keep going.”

Liggin gave Blaha a notebook to start planning his time days in advance — the first step to “getting out of survival mode.”

Now, Blaha is taking a role in helping others who are currently climbing out of homelessness by speaking to groups and serving as a peer support specialist. He has completed training, and will be certified after 500 hours of work.

“I reached the top of the ladder and now I’m on the roof,” Blaha said. “These guys have one foot on the bottom rung… Money is great, but it’s the people that really make the difference.”

On Dec. 21, 2018, the longest night of the year and winter solstice, a group of 30 or 40 people gathered on the lawn of Williamsburg Christian Church for a ceremony remembering those who died while homeless. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
On Dec. 21, 2018, the longest night of the year and winter solstice, a group of 30 or 40 people gathered on the lawn of Williamsburg Christian Church for a ceremony remembering those who died while homeless. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Remembering those lost

On Friday, the longest night of the year and winter solstice, a group of 30 to 40 people gathered on the lawn of Williamsburg Christian Church for a ceremony remembering those who died while homeless.

This year, the ceremony honored four local names: Gary Duda, 57, Colmore Shumaker, 33, Kevin Wright, age unknown and “neighbors unknown.”

Among the group was Blaha, who spoke in honor of his friends who lived through homelessness and are now dead: Tommy Millirons, Edward Barnes, Lonnie Dove and Doug Maness.

RELATED STORY: ‘Remembering family’: After five deaths, friends honor Williamsburg’s homeless

“While I was sheltered by COFM, I came in contact with a hidden and faceless community, the homeless,” Blaha said during a ceremony speech Friday.

“Homelessness is like a black hole,” Blaha said Wednesday. “It sucks you in so it’s nearly impossible to climb out by yourself.”

Four tents were lit during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day ceremony Dec. 21, 2018 at the Williamsburg Christian Church. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Four tents were lit during the National Homeless Persons Memorial Day ceremony Dec. 21, 2018 at the Williamsburg Christian Church. (WYDaily/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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