The Department of Veterans Affairs has the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by January 1. That means any homeless veteran wanting housing will get it within a month or less.
The less-developed nature of Pasco County has created additional challenges when it comes to finding, counting and serving homeless veterans.
Pasco’s homeless camps can be found behind abandoned buildings and tucked deep in the woods any place out of sight, according to the outreach staff at Pasco’s Support Services Veterans Families (SSVF) program.
“Each camp we go into is really different,” said Ellen Crytzer, a 12-year Air Force veteran and outreach specialist with SSVF. “Some of them are really nice and well-kept. We have one we call the Taj Mahal.”
Her supervisor and SSVF program manager John Mafodda jests that they even sweep the dirt at the Taj Mahal camp. It has trails set up, camp rules and even a bulletin board.
“There is definite leadership in the bigger camps,” Mafodda said.
But not all camps are orderly and clean. Crytzer said others are strewn with beer bottles and trash.
So, they target the homeless veterans in the more chaotic camps first.
“In a rural area, you don’t have services like shelter beds.” Mafodda said. “So unfortunately, the homeless are forced to build camps in the woods, which provided a whole other difficulty when trying to locate veterans and provide them services and get them stabilized.”
Mafodda served 20 years in the Air Force, got his degree in social work and eventually joined the St. Vincent de Paul homeless veterans program in south Pinellas before taking on the more rural Pasco community.
The Pasco homeless veterans program started with only four staff members in March, 2014. Since then, the office has grown to 19 staff and helped more than 300 families.
“These guys are not looking for pity. They’re not looking for freebies,” said Duane Anderson, an Army veteran who has worked with the Pasco program since its beginning. “In military, we’re taught suck it up make the best with the circumstances you’ve got and Ellen (Crytzer) and I have to break through the defenses.”
Anderson served as an MP, in the Military Police, and a recruiter. He says that military training helps when working with homeless veterans.
“We are not giving up on a veteran – period. We don’t quit. You tell me no today, that’s just telling me I have to come back tomorrow,” Anderson said.
Debby Moody’s job with SSVF is to find apartments for the homeless veterans. She negotiates with landlords, but says pets can make it more difficult.
“I can’t ask them to give up a pet. I just keep searching until I find a place that will let them,” Moody said.
And when that right place is found and approved by the veteran, the ‘move-in’ becomes a time of celebration, said John Peterson, a SSVF mentor.
“The other day, we moved a guy in that was out in the woods for years,” Peterson said. “Just moving him in, he was very happy and appreciative. A very good day.”
Peterson said the first place the veteran checked out was the kitchen and refrigerator, something he’d been living without for years while in the woods. The SSVF staff also lined up all the food they’d collected on the countertop. The veteran just kept saying thank you over and over again.
The Pasco SSVF program manager Mafodda is confident his team will find housing for every homeless veteran in Pasco that they locate and wants help. That would qualify as a “functional zero” homeless veteran population.
“Oh I don’t hope, I’m going to get to zero,” Mafodda said in early December. “I’m going to get there if it’s the last thing I do in Pasco and Pinellas (where he’s advising). It’s going to happen.”
Mafodda knows not every veteran is ready to accept housing. But he and his staff won’t stop trying.