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Big Bend Takes On Project To End Veteran Homelessness By 2016

Tallahassee and the surrounding area have been grappling with homelessness for years.  After some organizational changes, the area is taking on a big project: ending veteran homelessness by 2016. 

Michael Ingall proudly shows off his art studio. It's only a small room in his trailer, but last year, he didn't have a place to hang his paintings or store his brushes and canvasses. When he came home from the Vietnam War in 1971, he found himself swept up in the hippie movement, and ever since then, he's been fighting another battle- chronic homelessness.

“You know, late 60s early 70s there was this thing called ‘hippie’ and that came along, and I became a wandering hippy, or a wandering gypsy is more the term," he said.  "Flowers in the hair, San Francisco, Jimi Hendrix, and all that type of stuff. So I’ve been homeless for a long time. I’ve never really had a home.”

Now, Ingall has a home but the road from 1971 to 2015 has been a difficult one, full of years living on the streets, in shelters, and rented bungalows. At the North Florida Veterans Stand Down event, he was contacted by the Big Bend Homeless Coalition and Veteran agencies who wanted to get him into permanent housing. And they did, but not without a few bumps in the road. Ingall found himself repeating processes multiple times, becoming frustrated and discouraged.

“Each time it’s the rehash of the same. Having to sound like a broken record, it really gets to you, or it got to me anyway because I don’t much like to have to bang a drum," lamented Ingall.  "I’m much like this: I don’t mind doing something if they want to do it, and they do it, but I don’t like to bang their door.”

Big Bend officials have been working to make the intake process easier. The region combined its efforts just over a year ago as a way to get more federal dollars for homelessness agencies. It makes those agencies work closer together. Leon County Commissioner, Kristen Dozier, serves as the group’s first chair. And Dozier says she’s working on the issue that frustrated Michael and other homeless veterans so much. Now the agencies use a single management system, which standardizes the intake process.

"So the person doesn’t have to repeat this every single time they go to an agency for services," explains Commissioner Dozier. "It is already helping us and it has only been built up within the last few months."

In addition to the operational changes, the Big Bend has taken on a huge project called Zero: 2016. It’s a nationwide program with more than 75 participating communities across the country. Of those 75, the Big Bend is one of 19 on track to end veteran homelessness by next January.

Kim Ladner is the Veteran Housing Director at the Big Bend Homeless Coalition. She exclaims, “We have two more veterans, or veteran families, to serve before we reach our goal for this fiscal year, so it’s a really good week!”  For Ladner, the pay-off is worth it. She said, “Once you see a veteran take that key and open that apartment door, I mean it’s like the light came on. It’s like Christmas and Easter and birthday all wrapped together.”

In the month of June alone, 30 homeless veterans were placed into some kind of housing, bringing the grand total to 158 since the project started back in January.  Officials say the future is looking bright, with 53 vets working with case management to secure housing by the end of September. Ingall isn't sure of his future yet. He said, “Not having to worry about sleeping with your guard up, not worrying about having to end up with a trespass charge somewhere because all you’re doing is sleeping, you know?”

Right now, he's just grateful for a place to sleep.