‘Truly God’s angel’: Homeless Army veteran saves man from burning vehicle after crash

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PENSACOLA, FL – A homeless Army veteran is being hailed as a hero after leaping into action to save a man whose crashed vehicle had burst into flames.

Veteran Freddie Finkley, 56, and his girlfriend, Stephanie Tidwell, have been homeless for approximately five years.

On Wednesday, April 7, they were panhandling at the Cervantes Street ramps by Interstate 110, just north of downtown Pensacola.

Finkley told the Pensacola News Journal that he observed a car weaving, and seconds later, the vehicle collided head-on with a pickup truck.

He recalled:

“Then I ran onto the bridge. 

“Then the car started to catch on fire, and then the flames were coming through the dashboard.”

The car’s driver, Eric Lopez, 34, began “panicking” and yelled at Finkley and another passerby to stop helping him.  Despite Lopez’ protestations and the raging flames, Finkley persisted.

Finkley told WKRG News:

“He said, ‘Leave me.’ 

“I said, ‘I can’t leave you. You’ll burn up.’ 

“So I pried his hands loose from the steering wheel. This other guy came, and we picked him up and toted him up the bridge.”

Once Finkley had removed Lopez from the flaming car, Lopez suffered a seizure on the side of the road.  He received aid from a passing EMT before he was transported by ambulance to a local hospital.

Finkley’s girlfriend, Stephanie Tidwell, is a double leg amputee and watched the frightening scene from her wheelchair, “terrified.”

She told the Pensacola News Journal:

“I was crying the whole time.”

She added:

”I heard him hit the bridge. 

“I saw Freddie run down there and try to pull him out and him trying to get him out. I heard the guy telling Freddie that he didn’t want to get out. 

“I started crying, and I just kept crying and telling Freddie, ‘Get him out! I don’t care if he don’t want to get out. Please just get him out.’”

A thankful Eric Lopez recalls nothing of the crash, according to his equally thankful grandmother, Sandra McFall.

McFall told the Orlando Sentinel:

“I asked Eric if he had anything he wanted to say to Freddie.” 

She continued:

“He said, ‘I just want to thank him. But how do you thank someone who saved your life? 

“’I am just so grateful to him.’”

McCall was able to meet Finkley in person a week after the crash, while Lopez was still recovering.

She told WKRG News, who was covering the meeting:

“Anybody who would do that has to be a really good-hearted person.”

McFall then turned to Finkley and said:

“You’re truly God’s angel, and I praise God that you were here because you saved my grandson and that means everything to me.”

According to those close to him, Finkley’s selfless deeds are the norm for him.

His girlfriend, Stephanie Tidwell, told the Pensacola News Journal:

“In general, he just helps everybody.” 

She added:

“People have run out of gas coming off the interstate, and I’ve seen him help them. 

“Or I’ve seen people with flat tires, and Freddie goes down there and helps them all.”

Commuter Stephen Sarty, who recently became friends with Finkley at a local gas station, praised Finkley as a “hero,” telling the News Journal:

“You know sometimes people who have so little are willing to give so much. 

“People like us — who have been so fortunate and haven’t had to deal with the type of adversity that others have had to face — sometimes, I feel like we forget that these people who are homeless are actually regular folks.” 

He added:

”Sometimes they are willing to do things that, quite frankly, other people with more privilege are not willing to do.”

Pensacola Police Department spokesman Officer Mike Wood also had praise for Finkley’s life-saving actions, saying:

“Anybody that helps out another person — especially in this case where it could have or did save a life — we certainly appreciate that.” 

He continued:

”It’s not very often that people want to get involved anymore, but he did.”

As for Finkley, he has met all the praise with humility.

Laughing, he told the Orlando Sentinel:

“I’m a hero now?”

He added:

“Come on, man!”

Finkley instead credits divine intervention.

He told WKRG News:

“The good Lord.  

“God.

“That one man put me there.”

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Report: Illegal immigrants are eligible for $15,600 stimulus check in NY, but homeless veterans are not

NEW YORK — Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and state Democrats have struck a budget deal that includes $2.1 billion in taxpayer funding to provide unemployment benefits and generous stimulus checks to New York’s 187,000 illegal migrants.

Illegal migrants who are eligible for the one-time stimulus check could receive up to $15,600, the equivalent of about $300 a week for one year, according to a report by Breitbart News.

However, homeless veterans are not eligible for the stimulus check according to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), causing some to wonder whether homeless lives matter.

On April 8, Cotton tweeted:

“New York’s 1,200+ homeless veterans are ineligible for these $15,600 payments.”

The aid to illegal migrants is $1.1 billion more in funding than tax credits and grants authorized for New York small businesses in the budget, according to Breitbart’s report.

On Twitter, the idea that homeless veterans are ineligible for a huge check intended solely for illegal migrants did not sit well for many.

One user, @gmc5561, posted:

“The American tax payer received roughly $3k in stimulus and a non-citizen, who came her[e] illegally, will receive roughly 5x more in NY?!! What am I missing here? I’d be more ok with this if it was going to homeless vets or the poor, but this doesn’t make sense.”

Another Twitter user, @CrescenziRay, wrote:

@CBSNewYork nice interview with the illegal worker who will get a stimulus payment under the new NYS budget. While she’s paid no taxes, she may get up to $15,600. Please explain how this is ok with you while we have homeless vets living on the street. I’ll wait.”

User @vivapower posted:

“Can someone please explain to me about the evil NY is plan[n]ing to give stimulus checks to illegal immigrants, while our own homeless people get nothing? There can be no worse slap in the face to our homeless Veterans!”

Is there a crisis of homeless veterans in New York?

A June 2020 report conducted by New York State officials revealed in 2019, there were 1,270 homeless veterans in the state with the overwhelming majority living in shelters. Of these, more than half of the homeless veterans were located in New York City.

In a 2015 press release, the federal government announced New York City had ended chronic veteran homelessness and gave credit to Mayor Bill de Blasio for his two-year effort in helping this population.

Chronic homelessness is defined as an individual with a disability who has been homeless for a period of at least one year or has experienced four separate episodes of homelessness in the past three years, according to the press release.

In a Dec. 29, 2015 letter written to the mayor by Executive Director Matthew Doherty of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, it acknowledged, along with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs, that New York City had ended chronic homelessness among veterans:

“Thank you for your commitment to ending Veteran homelessness. Your leadership—and that of your colleagues in the City of New York—has been instrumental as we work together to ensure that every Veteran in our country has a home.

“The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Department of Veterans Affairs are pleased to confirm that the City of New York has achieved the milestone of effectively ending chronic homelessness among Veterans.

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“We are confident that the infrastructure and systems you have built will ensure that any Veteran experiencing chronic homelessness in the City of New York will get the support they need to quickly obtain a permanent home.

We also appreciate your continued focus on ending homelessness for all Veterans in New York City.

“On behalf of USICH and our Federal partners, thank you for answering the First Lady’s call to action through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. \

We recognize and appreciate your extraordinary team, and look forward to continuing our collaboration as we work to end homelessness for all Americans.”

In March of 2020, news outlet City & State New York reported that the city was successful in getting homeless veterans off the streets and claimed only six homeless veterans were in New York City at one point:

“It’s rare to hear about New York City’s successes on homelessness. But five years ago, the federal government declared that New York City had ended chronic veteran homelessness, a major milestone.

“Since 2011, the city government’s statistics show veteran street homelessness has declined by more than 98%. The latest figures from the city’s most recent point-in-time count show only six homeless veterans remaining in the five boroughs.”

With the reported success of getting homeless veterans off the streets, the news outlet questioned why the city was not using the same strategies to eliminate general homelessness for all New Yorkers. According to its report, the same resources aren’t available for the homeless who are not veterans:

“Much of the city’s progress on veteran homelessness was spurred by a federal initiative introduced 10 years ago by the Obama administration.

“Mayors across the country were encouraged to take on the challenge to end veteran homelessness, and both Mayors Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio signed on to the effort.

“In 2016, de Blasio created the Department of Veterans’ Services, which came out of an earlier task force and benefited from federal resources for homeless veterans.”

The combined effort of federal and local action with targeted resources helped the city reduce homelessness for veterans, according to the report:

“Targeting smaller populations like veterans may also be more manageable than trying to tackle the larger homelessness problem.

“When veteran homelessness peaked in 2011, veterans made up only 9% of the homeless population in New York City.

“Similar strategies could be useful for targeting other smaller populations, such as homeless youth. And the city’s approach has led to more progress compared with the rest of the country.

“New York City has reduced overall veteran homelessness by 85% since 2011, while veteran homelessness has decreased by 43% nationally.”

However, while there appeared to be a temporary reduction in the number of homeless veterans, there are still plenty in New York.

James Fitzgerald, deputy director of NYC Veterans Alliance, an advocacy group for veterans, told City & State New York that the issue of homeless veterans still exists:

“It gives a slight misdirection in efforts when someone is given the kind of outlook that it’s been defeated.”

While homeless veterans may not receive the stimulus check intended for illegal migrants, they should be receiving housing assistance.

In January, Gov. Cuomo announced in a press release that $5 million of the FY 2021 Executive Budget would be allocated to expand permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans:

“Veterans are more likely to experience homelessness than non-veterans, and many veterans who are at risk for homelessness are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder or substance use disorder, complicating efforts to get them into stable housing.

“The FY 2021 Executive Budget directs $5 million to expanding permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans through HHAP.

“HCR will also designate housing opportunities within their affordable housing developments so that homeless veterans in receipt of rental subsidies and Federal vouchers can more readily access affordable housing.

“Additionally, OTDA will work with DVS and localities to ensure temporary housing and services are provided to veterans experiencing homelessness and help provide them with permanent housing within 90 days of becoming homeless.”

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