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Homeless veteran who lost everything in pandemic wins D.C. vaccine lottery prize

Jul 13, 2021, 2:04 pm

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"When I thought everything was going wrong, this really helped me out"

By Kate Northrop

An Air Force veteran who lost his job, home, and car to the pandemic was desperate for support when he arrived at a Washington D.C. homeless shelter, but things changed for the better when he won a prize in the D.C. vaccine lottery.

Everything was moving in the wrong direction for Sung-ha Jou, 44, right as the COVID-19 pandemic landed in the U.S. When all seemed lost, his luck suddenly changed when he won a prize in the D.C. vaccine lottery.

When Jou was a teenager, he emigrated from South Korea to California and became a U.S. citizen. He firmly believed in enlisting in the military, so he joined the Air Force and served the country in a career that lasted 15 dedicated years.

His military service brought him to the East Coast, where the veteran took up a job as a car mechanic at a dealership in Centreville, Virginia five years after he retired from the Air Force. When the coronavirus hit the country hard, however, business grinded to a near halt.

Jou was one of many Americans furloughed as a result of the pandemic. He knew he had to find other means of income to support himself, so he used the money he saved up from unemployment checks to jumpstart his own business as a mobile mechanic.

It was not cushy or stable by any means. His job driving around the state to make car repairs and perform oil changes was not enough to support rent expenses, so he put a bed in his van and moved in.

"It was ok. I managed for a while," Jou told The Washington Post. "Until the car broke down and I didn't have the money to fix it."

Not only that, but Jou had all his tools stolen when a thief broke into his van, rendering him unable to run his mobile mechanic business. Having already been struggling to make ends meet in the first place, his food stamps expired, and he couldn't afford to buy groceries and water.

"It was really, really tough," he recalled. "That's when I really became aware of some of my mental issues, the PTSD issues that I had either ignored or was too proud to admit to ... I spent a lot of time in my car by myself."

Just a month ago, Jou's van was repossessed, so he had little choice but to sleep on the street. A few days later on a very hot day, he was found passed out outside. An ambulance took him to a hospital, where he related his luckless story to a woman at the front desk. She pooled money with her friends to buy him an Uber to a homeless shelter in D.C.

"When I first got to the shelter, I was very dejected, and I was feeling very hopeless," he related. "Everything I had is gone, and I just had no idea how to get back on my own two feet again."

The homeless veteran had heard about the COVID-19 vaccine when he was still living in his van, but he had decided that it was too risky to get one since there was no one to take care of him if he had a negative reaction to it.

He changed his mind almost right away when he arrived at the shelter and saw that he would be living in a room full of other homeless men, just as vulnerable to the coronavirus as he was.

"I immediately said, 'I need a vaccine now. I'm with a group of at least 100 people," he said to himself.

That same day, he got the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Unbeknownst to him, Jou was eligible to be entered in a D.C. vaccine lottery since he received his first dose at that particular vaccination site, the RISE Demonstration Center. Just last week, the city awarded various prizes, including one car, two $10,000 grocery gift cards, and eight Metro passes good for one year to those who had received their doses at three qualified sites.

"I had no idea," Jou said. "They said, 'Would you like to be entered into this free prize raffle?' I said, 'Sure, why not? I'd take anything free right now.' I didn't even remember it. When they called me, initially I thought it was some sort of scam."

This week, Jou was surprised to learn that he had won a pass for a year of free rides on the D.C. Metro system, allowing him to easily travel to medical appointments, receive Veterans Affairs assistance, and more. Not only that, but he said it will help him get back on his feet while he looks for employment and housing.

"How did they know I needed this?" he remarked.

Before, he would have to trod on foot for incredibly long distances in the muggy summer heat. No longer will going from place to place be an arduous task now that he can ride Metro trains and buses for free.

"This is literally God-sent," he said. "I'm so grateful for this. It's just out of nowhere. When I thought everything was going wrong, this really helped me out."

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