Homeless Emergency Project board chairman Bruce Fyfe smiled and held up a shovel at the groundbreaking for a $3.2 million veterans housing complex last week.
But the 150 spectators at Everybody's Tabernacle also heard the occasional breaks in Fyfe's voice, the result of an underlying sadness.
The driving force behind the project was the death of Fyfe's son Brendan, a former Marine whose severe post-traumatic stress disorder from three tours in Iraq blossomed into alcohol and drug addiction.
On Dec. 19, 2009, two years after an honorable military discharge, Brendan, 24, died alone in a Massachusetts motel room of a heroin overdose.
"I don't think any parent wants to see young men and women survive the horrors of war only to not successfully come all the way back home," Bruce Fyfe said. "I don't want any family to go through what our family has gone through."
HEP's answer is a 32-unit, single-occupancy facility with a 2,500-square-foot clubhouse that will provide long-term mental health and addiction counseling for a growing population: male and female veterans living with PTSD.
In Pinellas County, the number of homeless people who described themselves as veterans spiked from about 1,000 in 2007 to 6,600 in 2010, according to the Pinellas County Coalition for the Homeless.
As with all its clients, HEP helps veterans identify why they are homeless, then steers them toward treatment and resources that will keep them off the streets.
Construction of the residential complex will be the first phase of a three-phase project to expand services as needed. The complex will be built on one of 3 acres that Clearwater helped HEP secure. It is also made possible by about $800,000 in private donations to the Brendan Macdonald Fyfe Memorial Fund.
The facility is expected to be completed late this year or early next.
"It's not about the facility," Fyfe said. "It's about what we do when we have them there. Because homelessness is just a symptom. It's really not the problem."
The HEP tonic
The Homeless Emergency Project has been helping homeless families, individuals and veterans for four decades.
What began as an effort to assist one family at the small Clearwater church grew into an incorporated nonprofit agency in 1986.
Today, the five-block campus includes emergency shelters, apartments for transitional and permanent housing, a dental clinic, dining hall, after-school center, thrift store and business offices.
Clients get a caseworker, treatment plan and a bicycle to get around. Everyone works, either at a job or as a volunteer.
About 340 people, including roughly 100 veterans, live at HEP. About 40 veterans live in group-style apartments where up to 12 housemates share a kitchen and common area. But Fyfe said group living often is not ideal for PTSD sufferers.
Carol O'Brien, chief of PTSD programs with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, said symptoms include intrusive memories and isolating oneself from loved ones and the rest of society to protect against perceived dangers.
"Individual units are a luxury in the classic sense, but if you want to create an ideal environment (for PTSD sufferers), it's privacy," Fyfe said. "You've got to give these folks a place where they can take a deep breath and sort through the issues they've got."
He said the facility also will provide a safe place for female veterans, when most shelters serve single men.
But Fyfe said the premier feature of the new complex will be its services. A grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will fund five full-time, on-site addiction and mental health counselors. Peer-to-peer counseling and computers for resumes and job searching will be available at the clubhouse.
The first residents will be individuals referred from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"These facilities are designed to allow these men and women to stay a long time, if needed, in order to get their feet back on the ground and get acclimated back into society," Fyfe said.
Organizers say their mission is especially important in light of statistics showing that as many as 20 percent of returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from either PTSD or major depression. Various studies show that suicide rates among veterans are higher than in the general population.
In Brendan Fyfe's case, relatives said, the Clearwater High graduate was excited to find himself after joining the military. Colleagues described Brendan as a great field Marine with a positive demeanor. A photo shows Brendan posing in his crisp uniform, his piercing eyes beneath the brim of his white hat.
But it was those same piercing eyes that would witness suffering and destruction during three tours in Iraq, his father said. That included unsuccessfully performing first aid on two friends he watched die from a mortar explosion that he thought also should have killed him.
Fyfe said Brendan moved to Massachusetts, where he enrolled in college courses, but his use of alcohol and drugs caused him to bounce around among jobs and housing.
"For many, the war doesn't seem to end," Fyfe said. "We will not forget, we will not rest until everyone is safe and all the way home."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.