Housing gives these once-homeless vets a huge lift


Edward Harty, left, and Terry Ison talk while standing outside of their rooms at The Sunshine Inn on Friday in Gainesville, Fla. The Alachua County Housing Authority converted the hotel into a transitional housing area for homeless veterans.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 26, 2013 at 7:36 p.m.

Eric Nutter, a 34-year-old Navy veteran, left a hiring day at McDonald's with little hope of getting hired.

“Can you start tomorrow?” the staff asked five people who interviewed before him.

Nutter, who struggles with mental illness, wanted to be asked the same question.

Instead, he was told he could work three days a week — if the restaurant hired him.

Nutter said he knows it can be difficult for homeless veterans like himself to find work. He lives with fellow veterans at the Sunshine Inn on Northwest 13th Street who are having similar trouble.

They are in a transitional housing program for homeless veterans that gives them a place to stay while they work to rebuild their lives with the aid of services provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The two-year program is similar in setup to a planned project helmed by the Alachua County Housing Authority, which owns the Sunshine Inn. That project is in danger of losing its VA grant funding because of project delays.

Without the program at the inn, Nutter and the other temporary tenants probably would still be sleeping on the street. But they worry they will be homeless again after they leave.

Tim Chappell, an Army veteran, said he will be sleeping in the woods again if he doesn't have a job when he completes the program.

“If I had a job, I could stay away from being homeless,” he said. But his search has yielded little so far: one interview out of 123 applications he has submitted and no employment offers.

Chappell, 53, said he thinks his age is a turnoff for employers. Edward Harty, a 54-year-old who served in the Army, said he thinks the stigma of homelessness also can be a problem.

That stigma is something the veterans at the Sunshine Inn have experienced firsthand.

Harty said he remembers the way people would pass him by on the street.

“They don't care. They don't know,” he said. “They don't realize how hard it is on the street.”

Standing in the parking lot of the inn one recent morning, Harty, Chappell and a few other veterans explained what it feels like to be homeless and to fear you'll never be able to leave that life behind.

“It's like you're invisible,” Chappell said. “You're like a non-person.”

The people who do notice you look at you like you're a bum, not like someone who could use help, Harty said. It seems like it doesn't matter, Harty continued, that you've served in the military.

“We were fighting for our country,” he said. “For people to be free.”

Some homeless people would just as soon stay on the street, but most don't want to be homeless, Harty said, noting that he and others he knows just don't have the resources to leave it behind.

You need $2,000 to $3,000 to get an apartment, Chappell said. Some days, these veterans don't have the money to buy a newspaper so they could search the want ads or to pay bus fare so they could get to the library and apply for jobs online.

Veterans dealing with mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction or health problems can have an even tougher time finding work and changing their lifestyles. Many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Whether you're in a war zone or not, the military will give you PTSD,” Chappell said.

Transitional housing programs like the Sunshine Inn don't guarantee these veterans they will stay off the street and out of the woods for good. But they give them a chance, and those chances are hard to come by.

“Once you're in it (homelessness), you're kind of stuck,” said Steven Greene, a 58-year-old Marine Corps veteran. “If it wasn't for this program, I'd still be in the woods.”

Greene, who suffers from nerve damage in his hand, has spent six out of the past seven years homeless. But the inn's program has given him a place to stay and a chance to improve his life.

He and the other veterans at the Sunshine Inn have formed a kind of community, although like any group, not everyone gets along all the time.

“We all take care of this place because it's all we got,” Harty said. “These programs are great. There just needs to be more of them.”

They've all met fellow veterans who were stuck in the same cycle of homelessness, and many of them haven't made it into housing programs like this one. These veterans say there's a certain trust between veterans that is clear, whether they're living at the Sunshine Inn or in Tent City, the homeless enclave south of the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail near Southeast Fourth Street.

Even on the street, veterans stick together, they said.

“You know a veteran when you see them,” Harty said.

You share the same struggle, Harty said. No matter what branch of the military you're from, you're brothers, he said.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gvillesun.com.

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