Norfolk, Va. - Neal Shytles, the homeless man in Norfolk who touched the hearts of viewers all over the world, now has a new lease on life.
He's still homeless, but now he's recovering from weight loss surgery.
At his heaviest, Neal weighed close to 500 pounds -- the weight brought on by poor eating, a sedentary lifestyle, and then homelessness.
Two weeks ago, he underwent gastric bypass surgery, paid for by his Medicaid plan.
“My dad passed away when he was 56 and I’m two years away from that and that was always in the back of my head,” Neal says. “When they told me I qualified because of health reasons, I had to do it because I was just looking at a time clock.”
Since January, thanks to a new diet and exercise program, he's already down 75 pounds and is now recovering at the Union Mission shelter where he still lives.
“I’m looking to lose, believe it or not, 200 more pounds. At least 200 more pounds,” he says.
And what Neal has already lost in weight, he’s gained in confidence.
“I want to be one of those guys you see on TV holding on the pants, you know? I’m going to say, these are my pants,” he says.
It’s clear Neal is happy now but that was not the case when we met him last November.
“I’m lonely like 365 days a year,” he told us. “Christmas and Thanksgiving are two of the worst days.”
Neal came to NewsChannel 3 last year to ask for help to find a family for the holidays. His plea went viral worldwide and viewers took action, not just providing a Thanksgiving meal, but gifts from as far away as Germany and Britain.
They gave him money, clothes, even buying vitamins for his new diet.
But most importantly, he gained new friendships that have continued to last.
“I have a lot of support. I have the Facebook page “Cards for Neal Shytles,” he says. “There’s about 3,500 people or something like that.”
Neal started the Facebook group after our original story aired.
This year, he won’t have a problem finding friends to spend the holidays with, but it won’t be quite the same.
“As far as food goes, I’ll probably have a little saucer plate instead of a big plate and it probably won’t be that full,” he says.
He’s on a strict diet of only liquids for a few weeks.
“That’s my protein shakes and I’m allowed to have yogurt now and Jell-O,” Neal says.
When he does get off that diet, he must watch everything he eats – foods not provided by the Union Mission.
So far, he says he’s managed to get by with the little money he makes from Social Security and handouts from his new friends. But he hopes the operation will finally be the key to getting out of homelessness.
"People are going to watch this story and say alright, he's had the surgery so when is he going to get a job and get out and move on," Neal says. “That’s what I’m excited about. I was telling you earlier about looking at my options as far as what I’m interested in doing.”
Neal is interested in working as a painter or maybe in retail. But his real dream?
“I would love to be able to afford a car and do the Uber thing, you know, be an Uber driver.”
In about a month, after his recovery, he says he will start the application process.
So now, step by step and pound by pound, Neal continues to walk towards a new life.
“I feel blessed because I feel a lot better.”