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Fla. center for once-homeless vets tries to stay afloat, on volunteers and hope

By MATT SOERGEL | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: July 18, 2013

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Brett Bell says where he’d really like to be is with the soldiers in Afghanistan. Still fighting. Still on a mission.

He’d rather be there, even after his four tours in Iraq as a forward observer for artillery units, where he headed out on patrol each day not sure if he’d be coming back. Even after the suicide bomber’s dump truck rammed his Humvee, leaving Bell with burns on his face and hands, putting him in the hospital until he could persuade doctors to clear him for one more deployment in Iraq.

“I think those four tours were the best time I had in my life,” he said.

But it’s not because he doesn’t like where he is, living at Five Star Veterans Center, a place where homeless veterans can get housing and training to get their lives back together.

Bell said Five Star has saved him, giving him a place to sleep — and some of the structure and the camaraderie he had when he was a warrior.

A former nursing home painted red, white and blue, the center has been named Five Star since March. It opened a year earlier as Allied Veterans Center on property off Atlantic Boulevard bought and renovated by Allied Veterans of the World. But that name became toxic to many after news broke of a giant racketeering and money-laundering probe into gaming centers run by that group. The investigation led to 57 arrests and the resignation of the state’s lieutenant governor.

“Disaster Day.” That’s what Len and Suzie Loving, who have been running the center since it began, call that day in March.

The center was set up as a separate entity from Allied Veterans of the World. That group, though, did provide most of its funding, and had signed over ownership of the property to the nonprofit that runs the operation.

That funding went away on Disaster Day. The center has made it since then on what was left, and with the help of volunteers, nonprofits and scattered, welcome donations — from a dollar to $10,000.

Last week, Suzie Loving said Five Star had $12,000 to its name. There’s one paid employee left, a cook. The Lovings are there just about every day, but they haven’t collected a paycheck since Disaster Day. They don’t make a big deal about that; instead they joke good-naturedly about the challenge and then look for help every day.

Len Loving, a retired Marine colonel, said many people have been supportive. But in the city’s corporate world, where big donors come from, there’s definitely a stigma still connected to the racketeering scandal, he said.

That’s hurt. But there is a future, he believes, for Five Star, a transitional center that takes in honorably discharged homeless veterans of the post-9/ 11 era, some of whom — like Bell — have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. By last week, 27 vets had graduated from the programs there, moving on to jobs and apartments of their own.

If the center can make it until January, it could be in line for significant Veterans Administration funding, the Lovings said. They also have other plans, other possible benefactors, that they can’t yet talk about publicly: The place just needs to stay afloat a little while longer.

Besides, said Suzie Loving, what are they supposed to do? Put the 26 veterans who live there — her “kids,” she calls them — back on the streets?

Bell, the Iraq War veteran, is 32. He was in the Army from 2002 to 2012, leaving as a sergeant. He was medically discharged, which wasn’t his idea. Doctors told him he had traumatic brain injury as well as PTSD, leading to some short-term memory issues.

He’s been accepted into a 12-month Wounded Warrior Project training program. He’ll start next month, with a goal to go Jacksonville University and its aeronautics program. But earlier this year, he had no place to go. He was living in cheap motels and homeless shelters until referred to Five Star.

Bell helps around the center, washing dishes, doing odd jobs. He couldn’t have made it this far without it. “You go from having nothing to going back to being a productive citizen in society,” he said.

Tony Centonze, 25, was a missile tech on a submarine based at Kings Bay in Georgia. He spent up to three months at a time under the sea. After leaving the Navy, he had trouble finding a job. Money ran out quickly, and after he got evicted he lived in abandoned buildings in downtown Jacksonville, part of a group that banded together for protection. He got to Five Star almost five months ago, and is now working at a Walmart.

In his future? He sees money getting saved up, his own car, his own apartment. “For now, this is home,” he said.

Nick Manson, 28, is taking classes at Florida State College, aiming to enter a nursing program. He’d planned to stay in the Navy for 20 years, so he didn’t save money, didn’t go to school — he had time for that later, he figured.

He worked on helicopter maintenance on a carrier until an Atlantic storm roared to life. He and another Navy man were running with a heavy box of chains to lash down helicopters on deck when the other guy stumbled. The weight shifted to Manson’s side, and he injured a disk in his back.

He was medically discharged, and after five years the stability of Navy life was gone. He worked low-paying jobs, and money got tight. He ended up on friends’ couches, when he wasn’t in a tent in the woods. Being homeless, he said, was brutal. It wasn’t him — yet there he was, with no place to go.

“It takes a lot out of you, after having the pride of being in the military, then having nothing,” Manson said. “Without this place?” He shook his head. “I’d be nothing.”
 

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