County, business serve holiday lunch to homeless veterans
TAMPA, Fla. - When Jeremiah Robinson returned from military service in Afghanistan, he brought baggage he couldn't discard.
Depression set in, he said. And as he tried to move forward after an honorable discharge as a Marine Corps sergeant, more of life's difficulties got in his way.
His mother became sick and died of breast cancer. And he no longer could tolerate Arizona's desert environment, prompting his move to central Florida.
For the past three months he has been homeless.
Then, on Friday, he and about 30 other homeless veterans had a brief reprieve. They ate a holiday lunch provided by Hillsborough County Veterans Affairs, defense contractor Vykin Corp. and the nonprofit group Support the Troops.
"It makes me feel glad to see businesses step forward and do something for the veterans," Robinson said, standing in the Iraq war memorial at Veterans Memorial Park, waiting for lunch to be served. "They are really stepping up for the vets now."
Robinson is part of the county's Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. He has a clean bed to sleep in as part of the county's transitional housing program, and in January he will begin classes at St. Petersburg College, hoping to land a job in the hospitality field.
Others who attended Friday's luncheon, from the Gulf War and subsequent military endeavors, also expressed gratitude for the holiday meal.
Delmer Ramos, who served in the Army from 1979 to 1982 and in the Marine Corps from 1984 to 1988, is part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' domiciliary program, which transitions veterans from the streets back to a better reality -- one with employment and housing.
He has been out of work and homeless for five years, since losing his job as a night clerk at a Fort Lauderdale hotel.
"I came here and was living on the streets and eating out of Dumpsters. When I got sick from something I ate, I was referred to the VA."
Today he is attending school to become an X-ray technician and get certified in medical office procedures while living at the domiciliary.
"It's just great to be here because I can share a meal and reconnect with some of the people that are helping me with my life," he said.
Curtis Wilson, with Hillsborough County Veterans Affairs, said the county has had a grant for the past five years to help homeless veterans prepare to return to the workforce.
"We bring them in; we screen and assess them and find out their needs," Griffin said. "If we can, we find them shelter." If they have drug or alcohol problems or mental health issues, those, too, are addressed.
"Some of them get out of the service and just can't cope with life's issues," he said.
After making a series of "stupid mistakes," Mike Vigliotti said he is happy to have new opportunities through the county veterans programs. He served in the Army at Fort Bragg from 2001 to 2005, as support for special operations forces and Delta Force troops headed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
He worked steadily for a while but ended up sleeping in vacant lots.
He now is in the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater, trying to get back on track.
"I think this is awesome, that they are having this luncheon for us," he said. "It's inspiring to feel like we have the support of the business community."
Stanley Clay, Hillsborough County's job development specialist, said area businesses strive to get homeless veterans back to work. Businesses such as Vykin offer a few special moments along the way.
A Navy veteran herself, Vykin owner Alesha Griffin said hosting the luncheon for homeless vets is the way she and her staff choose to give back.