Homeless Tampa Bay veterans and their families find hope amid pandemic

By ILEANA NAJARRO | Tampa Bay Times | Published: June 17, 2020

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In a regular month, Ron Lillard would have about 15-20 veterans and their families enrolled in trying to get permanent housing, he said. Lillard is a housing specialist at St. Vincent de Paul CARES, which serves 16 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Polk.

In the past few months, the numbers have jumped — 36 in March, 40 in April, 46 in May and 49 so far in June, a sokesperson for the nonprofit said.

As veterans and their family members lost jobs or working hours due to fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, local nonprofits such as St. Vincent de Paul CARES and Tampa Crossroads have stepped up to ensure they stay in the safest place possible: their own homes.

Since March, St. Vincent de Paul CARES has housed 155 families overall, including those with veterans who were homeless at the time, according to Michael Raposa, the nonprofit’s chief executive.

“The message that that sends to the community is, nothing can keep us down from solving homelessness, not even a pandemic,” he said.

The first step was moving veterans from the streets or in shelters to hotels and motels where they could better stop the spread of the virus. It also allowed case managers to visit them two or three times a day to provide meals, transportation to doctor appointments and other services, Raposa said. No one has tested positive at the nonprofit’s CARE Center homeless shelter or its Center of Hope transitional housing facility, a spokesperson said.

Hotel chains, including La Quinta Inn in Hillsborough County, worked with Tampa Crossroads to provide temporary shelter for veterans in need, said Andrea Taylor-Machin, program manager at the nonprofit. Since March, they have moved 28 into permanent housing.

That is the long-term goal for all of the veteran clients, and the federal government is helping.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs allocated $202 million nationally to help local nonprofits working with veterans at risk of losing their homes during the pandemic and to house those who already had lost their homes, according to a release. But the nonprofits still had to find local landlords willing to work with the veterans.

As Lillard noted, a landlord could have a tenant unable to pay rent for three months due to the pandemic, and then Lillard would arrive with a new potential tenant who had no income. They had to win over the landlord’s trust in the nonprofit’s housing program and in a tenant who was trying to become self-sufficient.

Take Christopher Kubiak, 53. A veteran Army private, who later served in the Georgia National Guard, Kubiak had been homeless for a couple of years in Oldsmar when he met Lillard, who helped him secure an apartment in St. Petersburg in April.

“I feel empowered,” Kubiak said. “I have a roof over my head.”

His case manager checks on him, offering food, clothing and job leads. The chance to get back on his feet is a blessing, he said, and he has someone holding him accountable.

The nonprofit’s clients have anxiety over being able to find work that will allow them keep their new housing, Lillard said. The nonprofit will provide assistance until it is no longer needed, according to Raposa.

There’s also the challenge of finding available housing. Fewer families are moving out of their homes, because they are unsure of the pandemic’s long-term economic effects, Lillard said. And even before the pandemic, the region’s lack of affordable housing presented a challenge, Taylor-Machin said.

To further assist the nonprofits, the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative amended its contracts to ensure that nonprofits weren’t penalized because they weren’t placing as many veterans in shelters, which is a metric for funding, said Antoinette Hayes-Triplett, chief executive of the organization.

The need for permanent housing and financial assistance to prevent homelessness among Tampa Bay’s veteran population continues, and local nonprofits remain committed to the mission.

“Our program has not lost the focus of housing first,” Taylor-Machin said.

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