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Liberty Manor offers shelter, dignity to growing army of homeless vets

TAMPA — Arnett Johnson doesn't like to talk about himself.

The Vietnam veteran prefers to sit quietly in the corner, away from the blinking holiday lights at Liberty Manor. While others recount their stories, he hobbles into another room, reluctant to talk about how he received a Purple Heart.

The 58-year-old native of Little Rock, Ark., says he enlisted in the Army in 1969 and spent four months in Vietnam before his tour of duty came to an abrupt and brutal end.

In Hillsborough County, veterans like Johnson make up more than 1,600 of the estimated 10,000 people who are homeless. There are more than 1,100 veterans who call Pinellas home. Nationally, more than 100,000 veterans are living on the streets.

Vietnam-era veterans make up more than half that number, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The agency reports that the number of homeless veterans from that era is greater than the 58,193 U.S. casualties during that war. A small number of Desert Storm veterans also are ending up on the streets.

Johnson came to Liberty Manor two months ago after he broke up with his girlfriend and had no place to go.

The two-story house and cottages at 10015 N Ninth St. in Tampa are home to 17 vets. He discovered it during a trip to the Veterans Administration, where he learned he could apply for disability.

Since 2006, the nonprofit has helped give hundreds of homeless veterans like him a place to call home. The organization has four centers: one in Largo and three in Hillsborough County.

Their goal is to give struggling veterans a base for the transition back into civilian life.

In an interview, Johnson looked back briefly at his wartime experience.

On the Fourth of July 1970, he recalled, they were speeding down a canal through the jungle on a boat.

From nowhere, a boom. The boat disintegrated. They had hit a booby trap.

"A lot of guys lost arms and legs and eyes. It was pretty horrific," the Army veteran said. He had shrapnel wounds.

He credits medics and helicopter pilots with saving his life.

"Those are the bravest men," Johnson said.

Advocates worry that with the two current wars, more veterans will become homeless. They say there's already an overall shortage of shelter and affordable housing.

In Hillsborough alone, there are only about 1,500 beds for what's considered the state's largest homeless population.

"We serve mostly Vietnam-era veterans," said Liberty Manor director Jeff Luddeke. "With this latest gig in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war is really starting to mirror Vietnam. And we're concerned about what's going to happen in the future."

A former homeless veteran himself, Luddeke helped start Liberty Manor with chief executive officer Connie Blaney four years ago.

Blaney met him when she was assigned to help him comply with terms of probation for grand theft charges through the public defender's office.

Through Luddeke, and other experiences helping homeless in the area, Blaney said she saw a need to help veterans.

"The VA provides so much for our veterans," she said, "but housing is not at the top of their list. They don't help with that at all."

With their own money, Blaney and her family bought the first Liberty Manor on N Ninth Street. Over the years, operations have expanded to accommodate a growing need.

The group has also addressed code violations that forced veterans out of its homes on Ninth and Myrtle streets in May 2008. Blaney took out an $80,000 personal loan to install a sprinkler system, fire alarms, proper fire exits and a host of other changes the Tampa Fire Marshal's Office required.

Though it's been tough to pay back, and they still have a festering termite problem in the Ninth Street house, Blaney said she's just happy to still be helping veterans.

"A lot of times, veterans are in a time tunnel," she said. "When they get out, they are so far behind everyone else. And it's hard to catch up, especially if you've got PTSD or are self-medicating with drugs and alcohol."

That's what happened to Tim Titus when he was discharged from the Navy after serving in Desert Storm.

Sitting in the glow of Christmas tree lights, he explained how he fell out of a helicopter and broke his back while flying over the Red Sea.

Once back in Florida, his marriage fell apart and eventually he ended up on the streets.

"I used to say to myself that I would never end up like other soldiers I saw," he said. "I said I would never not pay rent and blow my money on dope."

But he says he was blessed when he found himself at the doorstep of Liberty Manor three years ago. Without them, and the affordable place to live, he doesn't think he would have made it.

He only hopes that there will be just as much help available for the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These vets getting ready to get out," Titus said. "The government can't afford what's going to happen."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2454.

.Fast facts

About the Manor

For more information about Liberty Manor, go to libertymanor.org, or call director Jeff Luddeke at (813) 352-7856. Liberty Manor has three homes in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas.

Liberty Manor offers shelter, dignity to growing army of homeless vets 12/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2009 12:14am]

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