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HELP FOR WARRIORS

New roof leads to understanding of homeless veterans’ needs

Rachel Heimann Mercader

Naples Daily News | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA

Replacing a roof that protects homeless veterans was the least Hannah Vogel felt she could do to help those who have sacrificed so much for their county.

She said that after meeting Dan Mullin, who founded Wounded Warriors of Collier County, she immediately knew her construction company needed to get involved.

That’s how Vogel Construction, co-founded by Vogel and James Hartney, ended up at Bravo House late last month to build a new roof. The company donated the labor and installed roofing materials acquired with a grant from a Naples Home Depot through the Home Depot Foundation. Vogel’s labor is estimated to be valued at over $10,000.

Bravo House, the second home for homeless vets in Collier, opened last April as part of a three-year initiative to provide housing and services for homeless veterans of all ages.

As the community comes together to celebrate Veterans Day, data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that for every 10,000 veterans in the United States, 21 were experiencing homelessness. Veterans make up about 6 percent of the population of the United States but 8 percent of the country’s homeless population.

From 2019 to 2020, the number of veterans without stable housing increased to 37,252 in HUD’s annual estimate, a few hundred more than the year before.

Social service advocates say the Wounded Warriors organization has heightened awareness of the plight of homeless veterans in the community since it was founded and acquired its nonprofit status in 2014.

“We are fortunate to live in a very patriotic community made up of local businesses that are willing to step up and serve those who have served us,” Mullin said. “It takes a community coming together to make a difference. Vogel Construction Group stands out as a great community partner.”

By Mullin securing a grant for the materials and the labor from Vogel, Wounded Warriors will have money freed up to meet other needs for the veterans such as mental health and more housing.

Its efforts have not been without obstacles.

Last July, the city of Naples settled a federal fair housing lawsuit with Wounded Warriors over one of its houses. The lawsuit said that the city was discriminating against Wounded Warriors by denying a reasonable accommodation request for disabled veterans under fair housing laws. The settlement allowed for up to seven unrelated veterans to live at 1361 Fifth Ave. N. in the River Park neighborhood.

Wounded Warriors had opened the Fifth Avenue location, called Alpha House, in January 2020 with three veterans and a house manager to comply with the city’s zoning regulation.

The veterans can stay up to a year and must follow rules that require them to not use any substances and attend 12- step meetings and mental health treatment outside of the residence. They pay 30% of their gross income in rent once they get jobs, according to Mullin.

Eight or nine veterans have lived in the residence, and more than half gained stability and were able to move out and be on their own, Mullin said in July.

Homelessness is just one of the many needs for veterans in Southwest Florida

In January, Wounded Warriors volunteers had identified 80 veterans that were experiencing homelessness. The Hunger & Homeless Coalition of Collier County verified 34 veterans that were homeless, based on HUD guidelines.

The Collier coalition reported that from October 2020 to the present more than 1,000 people were helped. Of that total, 132 were experiencing homelessness, including 79 who were veterans. The coalition serves people by coordinating available services to prevent and end hunger and homelessness in the county.

The Lee County Homeless Coalition, which coordinates housing and human services funding for homeless families and individuals in the county, also conducts an annual census. In 2021, there were 394 homeless people and 39 of them were veterans.

Kenneth Talbot, 71, who enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1968, was the first veteran to move into Bravo House, a threebedroom, two-bath residence. Since then, two others have moved in.

“It’s a mega relief,” he told the Naples Daily News in April. “Living on the street there are things you can do and certain things you can’t do.”

Talbot was staying in a shelter in Charlotte County because there were no shelter beds in Collier where his sister lives. Bay Pines VA Healthcare System ultimately contacted Mullin about putting him in housing so he could be near her.

Help comes in many forms

Vogel graduated from FGCU in 2020 with a degree in Pre-Law and Political Science but decided to follow in her family’s footsteps by pursuing her dream of being an entrepreneur and community leader.

She said she began networking within the community. That’s how she wound up at an event for Wounded Warriors and met its founder, Mullins.

The two spoke about how he had been having trouble finding a contractor to fix the old roof at Bravo House. A lot of the contractors were coming in at high prices or offering wait times that were months out, Mullins said.

“I told him, well I’m a contractor and I’d be happy to come to look at it. So James and I went out there the following week and we met the three veterans living there and they were the nicest guys who just needed a little help in life so we told them we’d be happy to do it,” Vogel said.

The roof was “super old,” she said, missing shingles and had suffered some storm damage, so they offered to replace it entirely.

Vogel said that she does not think most people understand that veterans have more than just physical injuries after serving their country.

“For one of these guys it’s hard for him to find a job, and they are all older too. They were very humble and the kind of guys who would never ask for help, but go out of their way to help others,” she said.

It inspired her to do the same. And she’s not stopping there. Vogel said her company has selected an active military serviceman, who recently returned from deployment in Iraq, to work as an intern next spring and help him transition smoothly into civilian life.

“This is an important cause for our company and we want to stay involved one way or another,” Vogel said.

“For one of these guys it’s hard for him to find a job, and they are all older too. They were very humble and the kind of guys who would never ask for help, but go out of their way to help others.”

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