ST. PETERSBURG — For almost three decades, Michael Dunlap was a nomad.
He had served in the Marine Corps and went home to Indiana. But he couldn't fit in.
"I couldn't find a job. Nobody cared," said Dunlap, now 56.
"I just packed my sea bags and I just moved from town to town, just picking up work wherever I could. I couldn't keep an apartment. I would have a good job, but I just couldn't stop moving. … I always felt like I had somewhere else to go."
In 2011, he headed to Florida.
"I worked day labor for food and gas and I slept in my car. I would keep clean at Burger King. I was looking for a break," he said.
That break came at the Safe Harbor homeless shelter, where he learned about a program at the Bay Pines Veterans Administration Healthcare System. It began a turnaround that eventually led to his own apartment and the gift of a mortgage-free condominium in Dunedin.
Dunlap is among hundreds of formerly homeless Tampa Bay veterans who now have permanent homes. But nationwide, the problem remains.
In 2010, the Obama administration announced a goal to end veterans' homelessness by December 2015. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says homelessness among veterans has declined 33 percent since 2010. Last year, the nations' mayors signed on to the effort.
With the approach of the Dec. 31 deadline, New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio is launching a $400,000 ad campaign asking landlords to help. In St. Petersburg, Mayor Rick Kriseman issued a news release asking the same. Approximately 125 homes are needed, he said.
"We are on the brink of achieving something truly remarkable in our community — the end of veterans homelessness," Cliff Smith, the city's manager of veterans, social and homeless services, said in the same news release.
In reality, though, "It's a fluid thing that's changing all the time," Smith told the Tampa Bay Times.
He said some veterans who get homes end up back on the streets. Others, because of mental or substance abuse problems, decline assistance, he said.
The city offers help in the form of its outreach team and funding to Safe Harbor, Pinellas Hope, St. Vincent de Paul and other agencies that help the homeless, Smith said. Earlier this year, it brought together several organizations to form the Pinellas County Veterans Task Force.
Jennifer Sprague, a licensed clinical social worker and homeless program coordinator and outreach supervisor at Bay Pines Veterans Administration Healthcare System, said the number of homeless veterans in Pinellas County is determined by the annual "point-in-time" count. On Jan. 28, the number was 621. A few days ago, it was 342, Smith said, adding that some were living at Pinellas Hope and Safe Harbor.
Dunlap found help through the VA's "domiciliary" program that provides short-term housing and vocational rehabilitation services.
"You don't have to worry about where you're going to store your gear, how you're going to get clean, where you're going to sleep and what you're going to eat. It absolutely changed my way of thinking and eventually my lifestyle," said Dunlap, who now helps fellow veterans through an organization called Service Force in Clearwater.
He initially got housing through a joint VA and Department of Housing and Urban Development program. This year, a private organization, Veterans Association of Real Estate Professionals, gave him a condo that he shares with his son, Skylar, 21, who moved to Florida in 2011.
"He was my motivation to make it through the program," Dunlap said. "He still is."
At St. Vincent de Paul, Edi Erb said the agency has placed 699 individual veterans and veteran families in permanent housing since 2012.
"In addition, we stabilized another 350 households who would have become homeless if we had not assisted. We're working with another 200 right now and more than half are already housed," said Erb, the agency's director for the VA-funded Supportive Services for Veterans Families program.
Dunlap thinks more needs to be done to reach unseen homeless veterans.
"They can say they are housing this many veterans, but how will they know that all of the veterans are off the streets," he said. "How will they know?"
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.