Homeless veteran on trek to advocate for cause

A man bundled in many layers of shirts, jackets and coats in front of the Johnson County Courthouse has caught the attention of residents, workers, drivers and emergency workers.

And that is exactly what he hopes to do to spread awareness of homelessness. Timothy Watt, a Marine Corps veteran who has been homeless since 2013, has one goal: to be seen.

A divorce in 2007 after two decades of marriage sent him spiraling into depression. Eventually, he was homeless. Watt lost and then rediscovered his faith, inspiring him to embark on a journey to each of Indiana’s 92 counties to raise awareness for those going through circumstances similar to his own.

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“God gave me this plan,” Watt said.

In urban areas, such as downtown Indianapolis, homelessness is a much more visible issue. That isn’t always the case in many smaller communities across the state, he said.

People often are shocked to see him and his shopping cart filled with backpacks, blankets and sleeping bags, Watt said. By visiting each county, Watt hopes to raise awareness by becoming a visible reminder of what is often viewed as a stigmatizing and shameful situation.

“I’m making people see me,” he said.

Johnson County is the 55th county Watt has visited, and he has developed a specific routine.

Tuesday is his travel day. He will spend part of Tuesday and Wednesday at a local library, learning about the community. From Wednesday to Sunday, he will be sitting on a bench near a courthouse, city hall or downtown street. He’ll spend Sunday morning at a local church. On Mondays, he is back at the library, researching charities in the county where he can make donations from the gifts he has received, often from passersby, during the prior week.

Watt doesn’t ask for donations, but will accept them if offered. He donates a percentage of the money he receives to local charities before moving on to the next county. The one item he often receives more than enough of is food.

Watt began his journey in Marion County in 2014. With 37 more counties to go, he plans to complete his trek in October.

Born in Gary, Watt lived in several communities, including St. Paul and Shelbyville, prior to graduating from Valparaiso High School in June of 1977. Eight days later, he was in boot camp, training to become a Marine.

Watt described himself as having been a troublemaker in his youth, with several run-ins with police. He figured a fresh start in the military was just what he needed and applied to each branch of the military during the first semester of his senior year. Watt joined the first one to respond: the U.S. Marine Corps.

With high scores on entrance tests, Watt had free reign to choose what position he wanted to serve in, he said. He spent his three years in the Marines doing paralegal work for judge advocates, before being honorably discharged in 1980. While he had considered potentially studying law after his enlistment ended, those plans never came to fruition.

After leaving the military, finding work was initially difficult for Watt. He worked for a couple of carnivals and did odd jobs and contracting. He eventually settled into more stable work, with positions at several factories.

In 1985, Watt married and adopted his wife’s son, had one son with her, and then the couple adopted two girls after being foster parents to them for five years. He quit smoking and drinking and described himself and his wife as devout Christians. They eventually settled into a home in St. Paul.

His world fell apart in 2007 when Watt’s wife told him she was no longer in love with him, he said. Their divorce caused Watt to doubt the beliefs that had shaped his life over the past 20 years.

“I cursed God,” Watt said.

Watt was later diagnosed with depression, and had a difficult time keeping jobs, he said.

Six years later, he found himself homeless and jobless in Marion County.

Getting help was frustrating, due to the hurdles in the process, he said. Assistance for homeless veterans is poor, and assistance for anyone else who is homeless is even worse, Watt said.

He turned to panhandling to earn money, and returned to his former habits of drinking and smoking.

Sitting in a park at 3 a.m. one day, Watt wished he had a gun so that he could kill himself. It was in that moment that he said he rediscovered his faith. He had given up on God, but God had not given up on him, Watt said.

This time, his beliefs are simpler, and his God is bigger, he said. He is less judgemental and more understanding. Watt strives to live by what Jesus taught as the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor.

That faith has brought Watt to his new calling.

Watt has a dozen blankets and sleeping bags tucked into a shopping cart — enough to spend the night in the cold if he has to. During his stay in Franklin, however, he was invited by Franklin Township Trustee Lydia Wales to stay in transitional housing she runs until he leaves for Columbus on Tuesday.

Sheriff’s deputies, Franklin police officers and county human services workers had all checked on Watt, though he declined any assistance from them.

A welcome reception isn’t guaranteed. Watt said he was once arrested on a charge of trespassing after visiting a library in Fort Wayne, though charges were dropped several months later, he said. But without transportation, he had to remain in that area until the court proceedings were finished.

Other times, it was made clear to him that he wasn’t welcome on whatever bench he had chosen to sit on.

The first step to addressing the problem of homelessness is changing how society views it, Watt said.

“They treat us like lepers and outcasts,” he said.

Whether it is the loss of a job, a fire, or some other hardship, many people find themselves without a place to live as the result of circumstances that were beyond their control, Watt said.

Watt’s route is now taking him to the southern half of the state, and then back up to Marion County so that he can end where he started. He maintains a Facebook page — Harry Homeless HIPPIE’s Hike 2 Benefit Hoosier Homeless & Hungry — which he updates during his stops at libraries.

Watt isn’t sure what he will be doing once his journey is complete. He wants to write a book about his experiences and continue to advocate for both the homeless and for foster care.

His next stop after Franklin is Columbus. Watt wasn’t sure yet how he was going to get to the city more than 20 miles from Franklin, but he wasn’t concerned.

“God always provides,” he said.