More than 400 veterans have been found living on Central Florida’s streets or in the woods in the past month as officials and volunteers work to get every remaining homeless service member into housing by year’s end, local leaders will announce Wednesday.
Central Florida’s “Veterans Surge” — the push to count, interview and house all homeless veterans to meet a federally mandated deadline — is the first large-scale effort to house the homeless in the region’s history, and one that government leaders and veterans groups deem a success.
“As you watched some of these homeless veterans who had spent 10, 15, 20 years on the streets get into housing for the first time … they began to be transformed in front of your eyes,” said Andrae Bailey, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which led the recent effort. “Just getting a roof over their head, getting some clothes, some food, some love and a pat on the back, they began to get better. It was amazing.”
But of 416 veterans identified, only a handful of the most vulnerable have been housed immediately. The rest will have to wait for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to comb through their paperwork and verify their service.
It’s exciting that we are getting closer,” said Ken Mueller, coordinator of the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program at the Orlando VA. “We can see that we have a little more work to do, but we’re definitely on the path.”
Officials also will announce Wednesday a new fundraising effort to help those veterans in the short term.
“We have the ability to provide housing, but not to buy furniture or clothing or food for that person,” said Dr. Paul Deci, the Orlando VA’s chief of mental health. “We tend to look to nonprofits and church groups to help.”
But Bailey said there is also a need to pay for interim, immediate housing so veterans aren’t suffering on the streets while they wait. To address that, the homeless commission is establishing a CrowdRise.com fund with an initial target of $176,000 — enough to cover the first 100 homeless veterans and their families. (Donations can be made through RethinkHomelessness.org.)
For Todd Fesperman, a 44-year-old Army veteran, the help comes just in time. With a wife and 2-year-old son, the honorably discharged veteran — who had enlisted in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — spent the last of his savings on a run-down motel room earlier this week and was about to be on the streets.
Beset by heart problems and a severe seizure disorder, he hadn’t pursued his VA benefits out of a misplaced sense of pride.
“My commanding officers recommended I leave the service because of my health problems, but I felt like I was leaving my brothers behind,” he said. “And I felt like I was failing my family.”
A church told him about the Veterans Surge, which led him to call the commission directly. There, staffers arranged to pay his motel bills until the paperwork goes through.
“I was afraid I was going to lose my son if I told anyone,” Fesperman said. “But they were all really nice. They told us, ‘You absolutely will not be on the street.’ And they kept their word.”
Fesperman’s housing is still temporary, but since the VA started helping homeless veterans in 2009, it has gotten more than 1,260 off the streets and into permanent housing. The greatest numbers have come in the past three years.
Most are veterans in their 40s and early 50s, and 88 percent are male. But the veterans identified in the local Veterans Surge have tended to be younger and less likely to be disabled. Unlike the chronically homeless veterans found previously, Bailey said, the recent population of homeless vets are those suffering episodic homelessness for financial reasons: They can’t find or hold a job.
“Sadly, in the future we know more veterans will faces challenges that put them at risk of homelessness, and we must have a strategy that accounts for this,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
That mission will be the next goal, officials agreed. Although VA funding for permanent housing for qualifying veterans looks safe for the foreseeable future, Mueller said, Central Florida has yet to tackle large-scale housing for nonveterans, especially homeless families.
“Ideally, the strategies that we put into place now will create a network that is so seamless that we can perpetuate this,” said Lisa Nason, chief of strategy and public policy for Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.