Brendan Fyfe, son of Bruce Fyfe, chairman of the board of HEP, is a Marine who served three tours in Iraq. After his service, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and later died of a drug overdose. He is Bruce Fyfe’s inspiration to build a facility to specifically serve veterans of the current wars.
Photo courtesy of JACKIE DRYDEN
The Homeless Emergency Project’s West Apartment Community is opening Nov. 1 to serve veterans, particularly those coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
CLEARWATER – Young veterans are in trouble. If anyone knows that, it’s Bruce Fyfe, chairman of the board of the Homeless Emergency Project in Clearwater.
But not only has he been chairman for over 20 years and works with the homeless and many veterans on a daily basis –he feels this need on a far more personal level.
“My son served three tours as a combat Marine in Iraq and came home with severe post traumatic stress disorder and died at the age of 24 of a heroin overdose,” Fyfe said. “So I think this is very important. I mean, numbers vary, but it had been that seven vets every day commit suicide in this country. We have vets coming home like my son who ultimately become casualties of the war. And they go unreported. And literally thousands have died coming home. And that’s not right.”
After Brendan’s death, Fyfe and his wife wanted to do something meaningful to help other veterans like Brendan, and ultimately he and HEP came up with the idea for a special long-term facility for veterans of the current wars who are either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. That idea has now become a reality, and the grand opening of HEP West Apartment Community is set for Thursday, Oct. 25 at noon, 1120 N. Betty Lane. It will open to 32 veterans on Thursday, Nov. 1.
“That is really the genesis of this program,” Fyfe said. “To build a facility that will allow people in distress like my son to have a place where they can be drug- and alcohol-free and heal so they can eventually return to their families and their lives and have productive lives that they fought so hard to allow us to have.”
The new facility is a 32-unit, single-occupancy complex for both men and women who are returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said Jackie Dryden, director of marketing for HEP. It is to help people who are suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury who are having a hard time reintegrating into society, she said, and are either homeless or in danger of becoming homeless.
“A lot of times, the post-traumatic stress or the brain injury impacts their mental state,” Dryden said. “And often they will turn to destructive ways to try to cope with it such as abusing drugs or alcohol or having depression and the like. It becomes a downward spiral and they can’t deal with life. They alienate themselves from family and friends and they basically find themselves isolated and alone and don’t really know how to cope with everything back in the states.”
Already, HEP has about 354 beds, and a third of them are being used by veterans in general, she said. Homelessness is a huge problem among veterans, Fyfe said. In fact, he said that the Tampa Bay area has one of the largest homeless veteran populations in the whole country. He thinks a lot of it is because there are two very good veterans’ hospitals in the area – Bay Pines in Pinellas County and James A. Haley in Tampa – so that draws more veterans to the area as they travel for care.
“I don’t think people realize, but vets make up 10 percent of the general population but 25 percent of the homeless population,” Fyfe said. “So it is a significant number of people. We housed over 500 last year alone. Without this facility. So from the community standpoint, I think this helps the community because it brings these people back to a productive life.”
The new facility is a long-term transitional housing program. It is designed as a two-year program, but they can stay until they are ready, whether that is one year or three years, Dryden and Fyfe said.
“Six weeks is too short of time for a person to recover, to heal, to deal with what they saw in combat and become whole again,” Dryden said. “So we give them the benefit of time at HEP, with the hope that that’s what they’ll need to feel supported and save some money. That’s often the case with these men and women coming home – the job opportunities for them are not plentiful, so they’re going through an economic crisis as well. So staying with us for two years gives them the opportunity to save money so they can return to independent living.”
There is no deposit to move in, and the veterans will pay 30 percent of their income to cover utilities and expenses, Dryden said. They are all one-bedroom, single-occupancy apartments with their own private bedroom, bathroom and kitchen.
“There are two reasons for that,” Dryden said. “One reason is that this younger population coming home from these wars do better having their private spaces that they can retreat to to deal with the issues that they are facing. The second reason is that it allows us more flexibility in placing residents into the room. We can have a female in there one time, and after she’s discharged from the program, then we can move a male in there.”
Fyfe said that HEP worked closely with Bay Pines VA Hospital to ask how to best serve the veterans coming out of these wars.
“We designed the facility specifically, though not exclusively, for (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and (Operation Enduring Freedom) veterans,” Fyfe said. “Iraq and Afghanistan. And in conversations with the Veterans Administration, they said individual apartments would be better because that generation of returning veterans seem to do better when they have some privacy as opposed to adult congregate living facilities or dorm rooms or roommates. And they do better living with their contemporaries, as opposed to older veterans from previous conflicts.”
This was not the case with previous generations, though, Dryden said. She said that Bay Pines said veterans from the Vietnam and Cold War conflicts do better in a communal living environment, but they advised against that for the new vets. It costs more to have the individual rooms, but overall they should do better in it.
However, since the residents will be living apart, HEP built a 2,300-square-foot clubhouse on the campus, which provides for a fitness center, a laundry facility, an area with computers so they can access the Internet and write resumes, and a communal area that can be used to watch TV together, host a birthday party or just hang out.
Each resident will have a caseworker assigned to him or her within 72 hours of arriving on campus, Dryden said. An individualized plan will be put in place that is designed specifically for that person’s needs. The plan takes into consideration what brought that person to homelessness, be it substance abuse or something else, and various programs and counseling are available to help work through these issues. There is also transportation available to Bay Pines where they can receive medical, mental health and dental care.
There are other resources for the residents, such as a community garden where they can grow fruit, vegetables and flowers, which can also be therapeutic, Dryden said. There is also a bicycle program where people donate bikes to HEP and they are refurbished and provided to the residents for free so they have a mode of transportation.
The facility is on a discreet, three-acre parcel of land that is kind of a park-like setting, Fyfe said.
“They see a lot of terrible things in combat when they’re in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Dryden said. “And a person in the military is trained to be strong and not emotional. And that continues with them even after they have ended their time of service. They still have that mentality of being the stoic, somewhat dispassionate individual, and they’re having to deal with these hard things that they saw in combat. They come home and don’t want to share these stories and keep it bottled up inside. They’re told to be strong and they don’t want to share these stories because it might be shown as weakness.”
However, after a while of this, a person can burst, she said. They need a release, but sometimes they find that in nonproductive and sometimes damaging ways. These choices can hurt not only the veterans, but those closest to them, like their spouse, family and friends.
It was a huge blow for Fyfe to lose his son, particularly considering his own line of work.
“I’ve been chair of the board at HEP for 21 years, so I have been working with people in trouble for a long time,” Fyfe said. “And when my son developed his problems, I don’t think I was as well-prepared for that as I felt I should have been. I don’t think any parent who loses a child thinks that they did everything they should do. So in that loss, that incredible loss, we wanted to do something. We wanted to not let his death just be a postscript. So his death was an impetus for us to consider what we could do so other families didn’t have to go through what we went through and so other young men didn’t have to meet a fate that was undeserved.”
Working with Bay Pines, Fyfe said he learned that while the VA hospital has a facility to treat PTSD, they aren’t able to treat all the other problems that surround it.
“If you are suffering from (PTSD), often it leads to anger, disassociation of family and friends, disaffection,” Fyfe said. “They get lost, they turn to drugs, they turn to alcohol. Well, if they go to a hospital setting, they can stay for five, six, seven, eight weeks of intense treatment, but it’s a treatment for PTSD. It doesn’t deal with those other issues. And often times when they’re discharged, these people have nowhere to go. And they fall back into the old habits that got them in there to begin with.”
With this knowledge, Fyfe realized that it was necessary to have a longer-term facility that treats all of these issues – not only PTSD, but the accompanying problems. And although the HEP apartments are alcohol- and drug-free environments and they have testing, if a test shows up positive, that resident won’t automatically be kicked out. Professionals will help work with that person to overcome these issues.
Thanks to some federal grants, HEP was able to build the facility and hire five more fulltime people for at least five years to dedicate to the program. There are so many people to help, and they want to make a difference, Fyfe believes.
“Every war is different,” Fyfe said. “In this particular one, the fighting in Iraq was extreme. The rules of engagement became tighter and tighter. In Afghanistan, it’s the same thing. You don’t know who your friend is or who your enemy is. You could be driving along a road and a bag on the side of the road could be a bomb that could kill you. An Iraqi policeman standing next to you could pull out his gun and shoot you in the head. I think significantly for all of these people, there is an event or a couple of events that they just have difficulty getting past. In my son’s case, he was on foot patrol and his two best friends were mortally wounded from a mortar that was buried. And actually, he was standing closest to the mortar, and he didn’t get hurt. He watched them die. And for a year and a half, I didn’t even know that story because he wouldn’t share it with me. But he couldn’t get passed the fact that he lived and they died.”
Too many young veterans have been casualties this way because of the war, Fyfe said, but he thinks the military is getting a better handle on this issue. His other son has served two tours as well, and he got back from Iraq in January, but just within the last few weeks, he received a call from the military to check in on him, Fyfe said.
“They were calling as a periodic survey,” Fyfe said. Are you having trouble sleeping? Are you having trouble doing this or that? Are you thinking of killing yourself? In an effort to reach out and get veterans help before they fall into the abyss.”
At HEP, everything is computerized, Fyfe said, and they track everyone who comes to them in order to get an overall success rate and to know what happens to everyone. The organization’s goal is that 85 percent of everyone who comes into the program leaves in a situation where they have permanent housing. This goal will carry into the new veterans’ program as well, he said.
“We really want to be the last homeless shelter anyone stays in,” Fyfe said. “Eventually, I’d love to see 100 percent of everyone who stays here succeed. So in a perfect world, I want everyone man and woman who stays in this facility to get better. Get control of their lives and leave and have the kind of life that they deserve, having served their country.”
The facility cost $3.35 million to build, and so far $1.3-million has been raised through private donations and grants, Dryden said. However, that’s just building costs. The program itself will cost thousands’ more dollars to maintain. The program can always use financial donations, but in-kind contributions are welcome, too. The organization is currently outfitting the kitchens, bed linens, furniture, couches and artwork and could use donations. Also, volunteer work is welcome, especially for professional help with their dental clinic or mental health or counseling services. People can also donate bicycles or items to the HEP thrift store at 1120 N. Betty Lane.
“Our residents, including our veterans, have the first opportunity to have their needs met, either with clothing our household goods,” Dryden said. “And then the remaining items are sold to the public, and the proceeds help HEP.”