Tears trickled down Ricardo Blair’s face as he described his journey from Navy lieutenant aboard the USS Saratoga to homelessness on the streets of Jacksonville.
Part of the credit for ending that homelessness, Blair says, belongs to Jacksonville’s Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program.
This week the city program received $218,000 from the U.S. Department of Labor.
“This grant will fully fund the program through June 30, 2015,” said city spokesman James Croft.
Since the program began in January 2013, it has helped find employment for 120 homeless veterans and provided job training for 196.
After a divorce a few years ago, Blair returned to Jacksonville where his two sons live.
He worked for a local trucking company and lived mostly out of his rig with his belongings in a storage shed.
However, after the company laid him off, Blair, now 61, found himself with no home and no means to support himself.
“I was sleeping in my Toyota 4-Runner, and my funds were getting low,” Blair said.
WorkSource referred him to James Frazier, a veterans placement specialist at the city’s military affairs department.
He applied for a position at JTA, and the program found him temporary housing at the Clara White Mission.
“Upon my entry into Clara White, I indicated to them that this was going to be a short stay,” he said.
“I meant that and said it purposely because sometimes ...” he paused, growing emotional, “sometimes bad things happen to good people. But never forget that the strength comes from the Lord above.”
Blair didn’t just wait on Providence, however.
“I spent a lot of time at the library trying to make good use of my time,” he said. “Because succeeding requires effort on your part as well.”
The city helped Blair buy his uniforms for training, and Clara White employees found him temporary housing. Though he started out part-time at $10 an hour, Blair was hired full-time shortly thereafter.
“I was able to move my stuff out of Clara White because, though I’m very thankful for the opportunity, staying in a big room full of other guys was very challenging,” he said.
After a three-month stay at Clara White, Blair is now providing for himself again — something that, he said, means everything to him.
“To be self-sufficient and independent, it increases your self-esteem as a man,” he said. “You have to give thanks to the system for the resources they made available.
“It makes it easier to transition back into the world and become a productive citizen.”
Unfortunately, as Frasier acknowledged, not everyone is as motivated as Blair.
“There are some who don’t want to get off the streets,” Frasier said. “Many times there is a drug or mental problem behind that.”
Blair now visits some of those veterans at the Clara White Mission to encourage them not to lose hope.
“I tell them to keep your eye to the sky and continue to do things that will move you in the direction of gainful employment and becoming a productive citizen,” he said.
“You just can’t ever give up.”
Clifford Davis: (904) 359-4103