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Missing In America – Homeless Veterans

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image Thomas Brown, an outreach coordinator for Tampa Crossroads, visits three to four homeless camps daily.

There are 10-12 homeless camps in Riverview, Brandon area

By Kevin Brady

Less than 200 feet from a bustling Brandon parking lot, homeless veterans camp in the woods. Surviving on half-eaten meals from dumpsters, sleeping in ramshackle tents, they exist in a twilight world, living on the edge of a society they served in uniform.

There are 10 to12 homeless camps in the Riverview and Brandon area, according to Thomas Brown, an outreach coordinator for Tampa Crossroads who visits three to four homeless camps daily. Tampa Crossroads offers treatment, housing, employment and other services for vets.

“There’s a perception out there that homeless veterans are all drug addicts and alcoholics but that is not the way it is,” Brown said. “I know people who were successful in law enforcement and health care who are now living on the streets. They are just like anyone else but they have fallen on hard times. They want to be successful but they have numerous obstacles in their way.”

More than 2,200 men, women and children will sleep in the woods, cars or abandoned buildings tonight, according to a Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. Around 170 of those are veterans, according to the federally mandated homeless count which was conducted last month. The real number is higher, experts say.

“The count is always an estimate and always an undercount,” said Lesa Weikel, community relations manager for the Homeless Coalition.

The Coalition is required to do the count over 24 hours “so getting to every homeless person in Hillsborough County, an area of 1,100 square miles, is not easy especially when many of those people are living in the woods or abandoned buildings and many of whom, for whatever reason, don’t want to be found.”

The May 17 report also found 12,843 people precariously housed, a 23 percent increase over the 2011number. While not literally homeless, these individuals and households are at high risk of becoming homeless.

“The count data shows we, as a community, are moving in the right direction, but it is impossible to tell how much of the decrease represents real progress and how much is due to undercounting,” said Maria Barcus, CEO of Hillsborough’s Homeless Coalition. “The 2014 homeless count will provide a better understanding and assessment.”

The 2014 count will take place during the last 10 days of February with a shorter questionnaire. Unlike previous homeless counts, the 2014 survey will also include those who are clearly homeless but refuse to participate in the survey.

Despite their wariness over the latest count, advocates do credit a number of federally funded programs with helping the homeless. The new programs, launched in 2011, helped more than 1,900 people who were either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless, according to the Homeless Coalition.

Two of the new programs, the Veterans Homelessness Prevention Demonstration project and Supportive Services for Veteran Families, helped 347 veterans in the last two years, according to the Coalition

“I fell through the cracks and nobody saw it,” said Ray (we are not using his last name), a 20-year veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Facing the collapse of his second marriage and unemployment on his return from his first tour of duty, Ray signed up for a second tour in Iraq.

“I volunteered for my second deployment for one reason: to die,” Ray said.

Thomas Brown found Ray living in a Tampa homeless shelter and brought him into the Veteran’s Assistance Center at Tampa Crossroads.

“I was pretty close to bottom but he (Brown) actually listened. He was interested. I was one of the lucky ones,” said Ray who is now working and living in his own home. “I would be buried in some grave somewhere if it wasn’t for [Tampa Crossroads].”

For those who want help, Brown sets up interviews with case workers who assist the vet with benefits, housing and finding a job. Finding children living in a homeless camp is especially difficult, Brown said. “I try to help them more than anyone else. It doesn’t sit well with me.”

There are 62,619 long-term homeless veterans in the U.S., according to the U.S. Inter Agency Council on Homelessness. Some 12,240 Florida veterans live on the streets, according to a 2011 Florida Dept. of Children & Families report. Only California has more homeless veterans.

“The average person in Hillsborough County has no idea of the extent of veteran homelessness in our community,” said Justin Baker, a case manager at Tampa Crossroads, which also runs Athena House, the only residential housing complex for homeless female veterans in Florida. “We deal with veterans who have been self-sufficient all their lives and then a crisis happened where they need assistance and they just happen to fall on hard times.”

Those hard times can come as the result of a divorce, loss of a job, a death in the family or any number of reasons, Baker said. “There are no two cases that are alike as to why someone ends up homeless.”

Janet Spivey and her husband Curtis are among those trying to help. Members of the Patriot Guard (motorcycle) Riders who provide escorts for military funerals, the Spiveys met a disabled veteran earlier this year who told the couple about the plight of Florida’s homeless veterans.

Working with the Sumter County Veterans Service Office, which referred her to need-based organizations in Hillsborough, the Spiveys’ Bushnell church began collecting clothes and money for sleeping bags and tents.

“I wouldn’t take just anyone out to the homeless camps but Janet and Curtis are solid people who really want to help,” said Brown who took the couple to a homeless camp in Brandon.

In Spivey’s experience, the homeless take only what they need and are very grateful. She remembered a former soldier nicknamed “Caveman,” who had requested a sleeping bag. She brought him that and a jacket.

“I said, ‘Look at this nice jacket. It’s just your size.’ And the tears just rolled down his face.”

Brown said the private donations give the veterans a boost, showing them someone cares. “It makes a huge difference in their morale if nothing else.”

The Spiveys also take Bibles.

“I don’t push them on the people, but they’re out there, and if they can read it, it gives them a little bit of hope.”

Tackling homelessness among veterans is not an issue that can be solved by Tampa Crossroads or the Homeless Coalition, said Tampa Crossroads CEO Sara Romeo, a Brandon native.

“This is a problem that has to be solved by our entire community. We need landlords to step up. We are not asking for free apartments, there is funding available,” said Romeo, who works closely with the VA and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide services to veterans.

“We need employers to step up (and employ formerly homeless veterans). We need companies like TECO to step up and work with us because sometimes it’s not possible for a family to pay a $400 deposit to have their electric turned on right away.

“There are a lot of pieces in this puzzle. We can’t just put a person in a house and say good luck. We need to be able to make sure they can afford the rent and are working. These are people who just want a hand up, not a hand out.”

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