LOUDON, Tenn. — Willie Franklin looked out over his 10 acres of newly purchased land in Loudon. That land is covered in grass and trees, but Franklin envisions a community of a dozen tiny homes next to a chapel, garden, community kitchen and stables for equine therapy.
He plans to house homeless veterans there. It's a big dream, but with Franklin's dedication, it could soon become a reality.
He is the Executive Director of The Lost Vets Rescue, a non-profit organization with a mission to give immediate help to any veteran in need.
"These veterans, through no fault of their own, have fallen through cracks in a broken system," Franklin said.
Franklin did not serve in the military but calls himself a proud American. He also feels connected to the community because his best friend and songwriting partner, Kent Bilbry, was a veteran. When he died, it hit Franklin hard.
"I started arguing with God and went back and forth and back and forth," Franklin said. "But, he changed me and put me on this path to help veterans and I've been doing it now since 2016."
The Department of Veterans Affairs said nearly 13% of the people experiencing homelessness are veterans. Franklin wants to take that number down to 0% in East Tennessee.
"I'm just a tool that God uses to help these heroes when they needed help the most," Franklin said. "I was homeless in Knoxville. I still have my homeless card."
He said he decided to help veterans experiencing homelessness because he too has been in their shoes. He also battled with an addiction to drugs, and it landed him in prison.
"I had some charges and ended up going to prison. In prison, I got saved. I come out, I didn't know what I was gonna do," he said. "But, I had to go through all these things in order to be able to understand what these veterans are going through now."
In order to get resources to veterans on the streets, The Lost Vets Rescue searches for camps and responds to emergency calls for assistance.
"I've been in the woods, on the streets, in old houses, meth houses — wherever we're called we go," Franklin said.
He said it's not uncommon for him to respond to a veteran emergency at 2 a.m. Once he meets and helps a veteran, he tries to get them into housing and find treatment for them.
"Veterans are very disciplined, they are very good and honorable people, they don't want to be on the street, they don't want to be homeless, they don't want to be addicted. But the system has failed. It has completely failed and they have nowhere to turn," Franklin said.
The Lost Vets Rescue say they've assisted more than 200 veterans in the past 5 years of operation.
One of the most recent veteran's that's taken refuge with the Lost Vets is Jacki Hurst. He said he was living in the woods before Franklin found him.
"I was addicted to opiates, pain pills and stuff like that," Hurst said. "I was couch-surfing until I lost everything. My cars, house, job — everything."
That's when he decided to bunk down outside.
"The skills I learned in the military really saved me there," Hurst said.
Now, Lost Vets rescue has set Hurst up in a motel. Franklin said the organization can spend up to $5,000 a month keeping folks in motel rooms.
That's why the tiny home community is such an important project to him. It will provide housing for at least a dozen veterans.
"There's gonna be lives saved up there on that hill, the lives of our heroes that live otherwise would not make it," Franklin said.
The Lost Vets Rescue does not receive any federal funding. They operate completely through donations. In the upcoming months, they will need a lot of physical and financial support to get the tiny home community off the ground. To find out how to donate and volunteer to help, people can visit their website.