CLEARWATER — Bruce Fyfe flits about the Homeless Emergency Project's newest apartment complex, chattering excitedly about this week's grand opening.
The apartment building's white and red facade with brown trim was finished ahead of schedule. The pungent smell of paint clings to the air as a contractor applies a fresh white coat to a stairwell while another worker tends a plush lawn.
Fyfe, the chairman of HEP's board, runs a hand across one of the new couches that await their first owners along with beds, kitchen appliances and other furniture lining the neutral-colored walls.
But Fyfe isn't focused on the material things inside HEP West — a new $3 million transitional apartment complex aimed at rehabilitating Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rather, Fyfe is speaking excitedly about the onsite case managers and communal atmosphere that will steer life for these young men and women who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
"If you wanted to end homelessness, building apartments won't do it. The key is providing the services and help necessary to get these kids all the way home," Fyfe said.
"This will be a place where young people can take care of their physical bodies as well as their mental condition. We want these people whole and healthy and back out into society."
Fyfe spearheaded the project after his ex-Marine son, Brendan, died in 2009 of a drug overdose following a battle with PTSD and depression over the disturbing things he encountered in combat.
HEP, which broke ground on the new building last December, already provides transitional group homes for about 100 veterans.
But officials say this project is unique because it will feature 32 single-occupancy apartments where PTSD sufferers dealing with anxiety can take time for themselves to heal. HEP is also providing a dedicated save haven for female veterans — a feature they say is missing from most shelters built for the traditional population of single white males.
Each 550-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment — four of them handicap-accessible — varies slightly in color and is fully furnished as well as Internet- and cable-ready.
To help ease the veterans back into society, the complex features a 2,500-square-foot clubhouse — open to all veterans on HEP's 8-acre campus — with a large-screen television, an exercise room and computers for resume and job searching. A 24-hour security team will also use the building, which will include an office where residents can meet with case managers as well as five full-time addiction and mental health counselors funded by a federal grant.
HEP also will provide round-trip transportation to Bay Pines VA Medical Center.
"A stable residential environment that provides a balance of privacy and opportunities for socialization is essential to readjustment," said Carol O'Brien, chief of PTSD programs with Bay Pines.
HEP's target population are 20- and 30-somethings returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, several of whom they expect will be referred by institutions like Bay Pines, James A. Haley VA Medical Center and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. But officials believe most residents will be self-referrals or veterans who enter HEP's emergency shelter program by chance, then graduate to the transitional housing complex.
Rent is 30 percent of residents' income, if they have any. The first tenants are expected to move in Nov. 1.
Fyfe says there was initial doubt among some in the social services arena that the large undertaking would come to fruition.
But he says the need is clearly demonstrated through U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that as many as 18 percent of returning Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans likely suffer from PTSD. Various studies show suicide rates among veterans are higher than in the general population.
HEP has land available to expand the complex to include two more building phases.
"I think Brendan would be proud of what we've done," Fyfe said. "He didn't deal successfully with his PTSD, so I think he'd be glad we're helping other men and women accomplish what he couldn't."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.