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Homeless women veterans can find hope at Athena House

YBOR CITY — A startling demographic among the nation's homeless has begun to garner increased attention from activists.

Up to 8,000 female veterans are without homes nationwide, including more than 300 in Hillsborough County alone. In response to these growing numbers, a Tampa Bay area agency is making strides to help.

The Athena House in Ybor City will house 16 women, offering 24-hour assistance, counseling, a place to sleep for up to two years and eventual job placement. The Department of Veterans Affairs awarded Athena House a grant last week of nearly $350,000.

The house is part of the Athena Program, a project of the local nonprofit organization Crossroads of Tampa Bay Inc., which runs traditional halfway houses and rehabilitation programs.

After months of preparation, organizers will join community leaders Monday for a ribbon cutting ceremony. The house is set to open Nov. 1.

Athena House will tackle the specific needs of female veterans, who often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug dependencies and adjustment disorders.

"It's not easy to bring people back from the brink of hopelessness," said Sara Romeo, chief executive officer of Crossroads Tampa Bay.

The only other residential program in the country that offers 24-hour support for female veterans is in Boston, Romeo said.

The VA offers counseling, support and help finding subsidized housing, but relies on help from local agencies for housing and other needs, said Carol Griffiths, the clinical coordinator of the Tampa Bay branch of the VA's Homeless Women Veterans Program. She has worked with the department since the early '90s and has noticed an evolution in the way the agency cares for homeless women.

In 2000, the local branch was formed to target the problems female veterans face. It currently serves 80 to 100 homeless women, 16 of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

• • •

The Athena House strives to offer immediate housing, unlike other programs that have waiting periods. "I truly think what Sara has done is remarkable," Griffiths said.

The VA grant, coupled with private donations of everything from an antique bust of the ancient goddess Athena, to volunteer help combined to ready the historic building where the program will be housed.

The two-story red brick building was once a boarding house. It sat originally on 18th Street in Ybor City and was headed for demolition when Interstate 4 had to be widened. Instead, the state moved the massive structure to Columbus Drive and 13th Street as part of historic building mitigation project. Tampa Crossroads bought it.

"Hopefully bringing this situation to light will help other communities to start programs for female veterans," Romeo said.

Joshua Neiderer can be reached at jneiderer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

>>fast facts

Athena House

A ribbon cutting with dignitaries from MacDill Air Force Base, Mayor Pam Iorio, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, state Sen. Arthenia Joyner and state Rep. Michael Scionti begins at 10 a.m. Monday, 1301 E Columbus Drive. The event is open to the public and female veterans in need are encouraged to attend. For information, call Sara Romeo at 238-5210.

How you can help

Items still needed include a 15-passenger van, three computers, two flat-screen televisions, two DVD/VCR players, weed trimmer, blower, edger, outdoor storage shed for tools, propane barbecue grill, porch furniture and cash donations.

Homeless women veterans can find hope at Athena House 10/02/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2008 2:13pm]
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