Wounded Warriors steps up help for homeless veterans with second house targeting long-term needs in Collier
Life has been tough for Kenneth Talbot, but years of bad luck and being in the wrong place at the wrong time may be behind him.
Talbot, who turns 71 next month, is the first of three residents of new long-term supportive housing in Naples, called Bravo House, for older veterans who are homeless.
“I spent a lot of time on the streets,” Talbot said, sitting in the living room of the three-bedroom, two-bath residence at 1139 Sperling Ave. between Goodlette-Frank Road and U.S. 41 in Naples. “But the good Lord has been taking care of me.”
The nonprofit Wounded Warriors of Collier County opened the house this week as part of a three-year initiative to provide housing for homeless veterans of all ages.
Supporters say Wounded Warriors has brought the issue of homeless veterans to the attention of a broader base of the philanthropic community and captures a more true-to-life estimate of how widespread the problem is in Collier. The organization raised $380,000 last year, according to President Dale Mullin.
As part of an annual "point in time" count on homelessness in January, Wounded Warriors volunteers found 80 veterans; the Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County verified 34 veterans were homeless based on federal guidelines. That’s out of 566 total homeless people of all ages in the community.
The “point in time” count run by the local coalition — and by others around the state — captures about 30% of the homeless in a community, yet the data is used by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for government assistance, according to Michael Overway, executive director of the homeless coalition.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a setback in getting the homeless into housing, as has the lack of affordable housing that has worsened as property values skyrocket, he said.
More landlords of single-family rentals and duplexes that are good fits for people struggling to get back on their feet are opting to sell for top dollar, Overway said.
The homeless coalition has stepped up its outreach and has philanthropic support from half a dozen foundations, he said. The county commission in January allocated $275,000, the most in recent years, yet the county money has yet to be received.
There’s also been money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, through the state Department of Children and Families, he said.
“We have rehoused 132 people from homeless camps this year,” Overway said of the coalition’s work. Of that, 25 are veterans.
Rehousing is often in the more affordable communities of LaBelle or Arcadia, he said.
Three-year plan: Charlie House next
Wounded Warriors opened its first residence for homeless veterans, called Alpha House, at 1361 Fifth Ave. N. in the city of Naples in January 2020.
The four-bedroom residence serves as transitional housing for up to a year while veterans get back on their feet, Mullin said. Residents pay 30% of their gross income in rent.
There’s been a 50% success rate of the first group of veterans getting their lives stable enough to move out and be on their own, he said. At present, there are four veterans in the house, one of whom is the house manager.
Wounded Warriors wanted seven veterans and a house manager living there, which requires a variance from city zoning that allows a maximum of four unrelated people in a single-family home.
The variance was denied last year and an appeal in federal court based on fair housing laws is being considered, Mullin said.
Bravo House is based on a housing model of long-term support for lower-income veterans in their 60s and 70s who can stay indefinitely, Mullin said.
The property is leased for a year; a lease for the for Alpha house property was recently renewed.
Wounded Warriors is considering buying the Bravo House property, which is for sale, Mullin said. A future and third project will be Charlie House, which potentially could be a shelter for homeless veterans of all ages, but no decisions have been made.
"It's under review," Mullin said. "It depends on how much money we raise."
No one housing model fits all homeless, he said.
“We are learning as we go along," he said. "In this (past) year, we didn’t know what the demand would be. COVID set us back.”
Mullin gets referrals from the homeless coalition; the David Lawrence Center, a private mental health center, and from the three-court diversion programs for veterans and individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Lt. Leslie Weidenhammer, who oversees the mental health bureau for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, said the nonprofit group has been addressing the needs of homeless veterans head on.
"A safe and stable home is the critical first step in ensuring our local veterans have a clear path to stability and recovery,” she said. “There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in our community with our veterans who have challenges as related to mental health and addiction treatment.”
A big supporter this year is the Community Foundation of Collier County, which provided $39,000 in February for operational support for Bravo house.
The foundation awarded another $247,500 in April for Wounded Warriors to buy a property within six months, which puts the deadline in October, Mullin said. The money could be used to buy the Bravo house property.
"(Wounded Warriors) is the only organization that is 100% focused on homeless veterans and their housing,” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation.
The first resident
Talbot, who moved into Bravo house Tuesday, is grateful to have a permanent place to live.
“It’s a mega relief,” he said. “Living on the street there are things you can do and certain things you can’t do.”
He was staying in a shelter in Charlotte County because there were no shelter beds in Collier where his sister lives. Bay Pines VA Healthcare System contacted Mullin about putting him in housing so he could be near her.
Talbot grew up in Miami and enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1968. He was hoping to be deployed to Vietnam but was turned down because his brother was in the war zone.
“There was nothing I could do about it,” he said. “I spent all my time in Germany. It was good and cold, I can tell you.”
He was discharged in 1971 and came to Naples where he got jobs operating heavy equipment and eventually operated a printing press for envelopes and other products. He almost lost an arm when some of his sleeve material got caught in the machine.
Eventually he moved to Long Beach, California, to be with his brother and where he worked in printing. A bad incident put him on permanent disability in his mid-30s.
“I got jumped one day and had a head injury,” he said. “I have seizures and blackouts. The doctor said I got hit in the face, and the seizures are from going down and hitting the back of my head on the cement.”
In another incident, Talbot said he was stopped while driving and a crooked cop planted crack cocaine in his car, resulting in his spending a year in prison.
He can’t recall the year he returned to Naples. He wound up in the shelter in Charlotte County and came back when the Bravo house opportunity opened up.
He gets $1,800 a month from disability and VA benefits. His rent will be $560 a month.
“I will stay here as long as the good Lord lets me,” he said.