Homeless Veterans Center Needs Help
Taint of scandal hurts facility for veterans
When Randy Wolffis entered the doors of the Allied Veterans Center in early 2012, he was living in a tent, had lost his wife, his house and his car and was barely eking out an existence with a part-time restaurant job.
After two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Navy, Wolffis was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that was affecting all aspects of his life.
"I didn't realize how much it affected me and everyone around me," he said of his PTSD.
For Wolffis, now 42, it was embarrassing as a former Navy Seabee to admit that his disorder led to homelessness and a severe need for help.
Wolffis attributes his PTSD to a 2004 incident early in his first deployment, when seven of his shipmates were killed and 32 were wounded.
"When you are in Iraq, you can't wait to get home. When you're at home, you can't wait to get back there," he said.
"There are so many feelings. You need the adrenaline rush, but you don't want it," Wolffis said.
When he returned after a second 2007-'08 tour, things turned dark, then exploded when he learned his wife had been unfaithful.
"I was out of control for five years," he said of the disorder's effects.
"It turned my life upside-down. It's like a truck hit you all at once and you are not prepared for the flood of emotions," he said. "Your life spins out of control."
By the closing months of 2012, Wolffis was living in a tent and taking baths by stealing water at night from neighborhood faucets.
When he eventually told a Veterans Affairs doctor he trusted that he'd been living in a tent for two months, he was directed to a social worker, who connected him with the Allied Center.
The center had started operating as Allied in September 2011, accepting its first client that December. Its funding came from Allied Veterans of the World (AVW), and operations went smoothly for a couple of years. Then in March of this year, an event known as Disaster Day hit. That was the day state prosecutors raided all the AVW gaming centers, called Internet cafés, and charged 57 owners and operators with illegal gambling.
Prosecutors alleged the Internet cafés had taken in more than $300 million and claimed only 2 percent of their earnings, or about $6 million, which had gone to help veterans. Prosecutors allege that the remainder of the revenue was pocketed by Internet café operators working with the AVW.
The Allied Veterans Center had been getting all its financial support from the organization. It had purchased a vacant nursing home near Regency Square Mall and spent $830,000 on the purchase, renovations and repairs. It had also received about $380,000 in operating expenses, officials said.
When AVW was busted, the Allied Center housed about 40 men and women, who were receiving treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
One of the first things AVC did when the scandal broke was to change its name to Five Star Veterans Center and appoint a new board of directors.
Vietnam vet Greg Frazier, who serves as the development officer for Five Star, said he believes the center is still suffering financially after the scandal and its close association with the AVW group, although its administration did nothing wrong.
"The vets are the innocent victims," Frazier said.
Now, Five Star is struggling to keep its doors open. Since March, only the chef has been paid. Four other staff members are not being paid.
Frazier estimates Five Star will need $80,000 to keep it going until early next year, though there are some positive signs. In September, Five Star will have its IRS number and name matched in its computer system, allowing it to start applying for grants and looking for big donors. In addition, Five Star will be eligible to apply for VA funding, because it will have been providing services to veterans for two years.
Regardless of the financial situation, Wolffis credits the center for turning around his life and those of other veterans. About 27 veterans have graduated from the program.
"There I got my own room. They welcomed me with open arms. I keep waiting for the catch," he said. "I was always expecting them to kick me out."
But he learned there was no catch.
The center helped him finish culinary school and helped him to get a chef's job, though his employer doesn't want the name of the facility published.
Before entering Five Star, many of the post-9/11 and Gulf War veterans had been living in their cars or on the streets as their medical and psychological conditions worsened.
Five Star offers its residents employment and training, skills assessment and development, career counseling, job placement, health and wellness services, transportation, housing support and transitional housing.
Its program, developed by retired Marine Col. Len Loving, the center's chief operating officer, is called Passport to Independence.
"Our mission is to ensure a positive impact in North Florida by offering safe/secure transitional housing to displaced veterans, in an attempt to alleviate veteran homelessness," the program's mission statement reads. "Our military residents are treated with the dignity, compassion and respect they deserve, while providing a structured Passport to Independence program to reintegrate these heroes back into the society, whose freedom they sought to protect."
One advantage at Five Star is that each resident has a private room, which Frazier said is important for those recovering from PTSD.
Most residents stay in Five Star for about a year. Wolffis is the first graduate of the center's reintegration program, receiving his diploma from U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Nov. 20, 2012, several months before the name change. About 27 veterans have graduated from the program and have moved into their own homes and jobs.
Wolffis rents a house renovated by the center.
Frazier admits there are other organizations in Jacksonville providing services to homeless veterans and Five Star does not attempt to duplicate those services.
The Sulzbacher Center opened a nine-room, 18-bed dormitory for veterans in December, where they can receive job training and temporary housing. Each room has two beds; a veteran can stay there while the VA finds permanent housing. Since its opening, the center has treated 32 women and 84 men.
A $1 million federal Community Development Block Grant from the city funded the 6,000-square-foot second floor above the men's dorm for the veterans facility.
The center also received a $1 million Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition grant to find veterans in homeless camps and bring them to the facility.
Allison Vega, Sulzbacher Center public relations and marketing manager, estimates there are about 400 homeless veterans living on the streets in the Jacksonville area.
"We know 25 percent of all chronically homeless are veterans," said Brian Snow, shelter administrator at Sulzbacher. The chronically homeless are those who do not have housing for a year or more.
Wolffis said his experience changed his viewpoint and he believes everything one goes through is for a reason. He sometimes mentors other vets still dealing with issues.
"They got me concentrating on my future," he said. "I am the luckiest person in the world. I am blessed."