Sunday, April 22, 2018
News Roundup

Rescuing veterans from the abyss

ST. PETERSBURG — At his desk, steps from an exposed toilet with two rolls of tissue, a sink, bed, small white refrigerator and microwave, Anthony Sperduto displayed computer images of his life as it once was.

There on the screen were pictures with ex-wife, Maritza, at a banquet, business trips to Hawaii and views of a meticulously decorated, four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot Texas house with 12-foot ceilings and a copy of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam above a fireplace.

As Sperduto, 53, tells it, his world began to collapse in the fall of 2006, starting with a blackout at work, loss of an executive position and back problems that became debilitating. Three years later, Christmas Eve, to be exact, the 6-foot-7 Navy veteran found himself broke and homeless in Florida.

A few miles from Sperduto's room at St. Vincent de Paul's Center of Hope in St. Petersburg, Heather Vazquez welcomed a visitor to her bare, three-bedroom apartment and offered to borrow a couple of chairs from her next-door neighbor.

Vazquez, 38, a military veteran who served two tours in Iraq as a hospital corpsman, has two part-time jobs. Soiled carpet and impoverished state notwithstanding, the apartment into which she moved a few days earlier is the "best home" she and her children — ages 17, 9, 5 and 2 — have had in years, she said. "We were going from hotel to hotel."

A national count recorded 67,495 homeless veterans on a single night in January 2011. Touting its beefed-up efforts to stem the problem, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says the figure represents a nearly 12 percent drop from the previous year.

Homelessness among veterans can be attributed to the same factors — unemployment, lack of affordable housing, illness, divorce, domestic violence, for example — that create the problem in other sectors of society, said Lisa Pape, national director of homeless programs for the Veterans Health Administration.

"Of course, issues around mental health and drug abuse, also in the general population, also impact our veterans," she said, adding that targeting chronically homeless vets is a proven solution.

In 2009, the VA announced a plan to end veteran homelessness by 2015 and began increasing funding for rescue and prevention programs across the nation.

In St. Petersburg, St. Vincent de Paul was recently awarded a $1 million grant for a countywide effort that begins Monday. The Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, which got the same VA grant targeting homeless and very low-income veterans in 2011, got it again this year. A few days ago, Catholic Charities got news that it also has been awarded $1 million, though for a different VA program with the same results in mind.

Reaching homeless Pinellas County veterans could be difficult.

"The issue that you have with a lot of veterans, especially males, is that a lot of them are in encampments," said Rhonda Abbott, St. Petersburg's manager of veteran, social and homeless services.

Though recent figures for Pinellas County indicate that 16.5 percent of the county's estimated 5,887 homeless residents are veterans, Abbott thinks it's actually 21 percent or higher.

"They are in hard-to-find rural areas. We do have several encampments in Pinellas County, especially north county. That's why they are a little bit harder to count and to provide services to," Abbott said.

St. Vincent de Paul hopes to assist at least 250 veterans in the next year.

"It's not just for the vet," executive director Michael Raposa said. "The grant will allow us to stabilize the whole family."

In an interesting twist, Sperduto will both receive and give help through the program. The former business executive has been hired to mentor fellow veterans and will seek them out in places like Safe Harbor and Pinellas Hope and on the streets. Ten people have been hired and trained to administer the program. Four are veterans, Raposa said.

The Supportive Services for Veteran Families program will focus on outreach, case management and helping veterans get military and other benefits. Financial assistance will be available for security and utility deposits, moving expenses and rent for up to five months, Raposa said.

Vazquez returned home from Iraq in 2008. As a veteran, she said, asking for help has been difficult.

"We don't ask for help. You put on your uniform and you are told what to do and you do it," she said. "I've been on my own since I was 16. I should be able to do this on my own. What hurts me the most is (the children). I have to apologize a lot to them."

She was waiting for a bus at Williams Park when she saw a flier listing agencies that help the poor. "That was God," she said.

The Lakewood High School graduate, who works in medical billing through a temp agency, received help from St. Vincent de Paul to move her family out of a motel to an apartment in the Pinellas Point neighborhood.

"I'm appreciative. This is more than anything anybody has done for me," she said.

St. Vincent de Paul has been helping homeless veterans at its Center of Hope for about 10 years through another government grant. Veterans can stay in the shelter for up to 30 days, or up to two years in longer-term housing.

Sperduto, who had back surgery recently, arrived a little over two years ago. In 2009, after being out of work for a couple of years, he sold his Texas home in a short sale, got into his 2003 Crown Victoria and drove to Bradenton to live with a Navy buddy. The arrangement didn't last and by Christmas Eve, he was on the streets. Sperduto said he found shelter at the Salvation Army in Bradenton and lived out of his car before ending up at St. Vincent de Paul.

"They've saved my life, because if it wasn't for them, I couldn't have survived on the streets," he said.

He wants to rescue other veterans who are down on their luck.

"I was one of them. I've come through the system learning on my own," he said, choking back tears.

"He is the right person," Raposa said of the new veterans' mentor he refers to as "a star volunteer" at St. Vincent de Paul.

A number of local agencies will help St. Vincent de Paul accomplish its goal in coming months. They include WorkNet Pinellas, Catholic Charities, Daystar Life Center, 2-1-1 Tampa Bay Cares, Gulfcoast Legal Services and the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority.

Two agencies that will get no money from the grant have committed to help the veterans.

"I look at it this way: They loved this country enough to risk their lives; the least we can do is to make sure they and their loved ones get quality care," said Joseph Santini, director of business development for Community Health Centers of Pinellas, which has five facilities in Pinellas County, including one in Tarpon Springs and the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center in St. Petersburg.

Then there is the Suncoast Center.

"We understand that many veterans will be coming home with multiple needs, especially related to their mental health. We will be able to provide mental health counseling, therapy and psychiatric services if needed," said Barbara Daire, president and chief executive officer of the Suncoast Center.

As he sat in his room at the Center of Hope, Sperduto talked about resuming certain aspects of his past life. He wants to remarry his ex-wife and buy her a home, but not the showpiece of the past.

"I don't care about that anymore," he said. "I just want to live and give back. …

"To be back in a home, like getting a job, it is the next step to contributing to society. It's like being born again."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Natalie Watson contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected]or (727) 892-2283.

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