Life undone: From service to streets

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on November 9, 2008.

By the time Gianna Fimbres washed up in Jacksonville in July, she had had enough.

Enough rootlessness after hitchhiking here from Arizona.

Enough dealing with emotional problems stemming from her time fighting in Iraq.

Enough of living on the street, of not knowing where her next meal would come from, of being "dirty, nasty, broke and sick."

In short, Fimbres said, "I was tired of being a homeless bum."

Three days later, she showed up at Karl Swed's office, hoping to change things and looking for help.

Help is what Swed, a 61-year-old retired master sergeant working with dozens of similar cases in the city's office of military and veterans affairs, is there to provide. Temporary housing. Bus tickets. Job leads. Direction.

It worked.

"He was relentless, " Fimbres said. "His support motivated me to go more places, to apply more places."

Within two months, the veteran of both the Air Force and Army secured a clerk's position at a Goodwill store, where she was recently promoted to the management team.

That position, Fimbres said, is the first step toward her ultimate goals. "You have to take it and grab it and run with it, " she said.

Fimbres is one of almost 80 such success stories racked up by the city office since July 2007, when Jacksonville received one of the U.S. Department of Labor's Homeless Veterans' Reintegration Program grants - rare for a city.


The reintegration program was first authorized in 1987 and focuses on moving veterans back into the workforce.

"If we can turn this around and begin to address the needs of these homeless populations, we can make them productive citizens rather than just beneficiaries of homeless programs, " said Gordon Burke, who runs the office overseeing the program.

The federal government has given the city almost $600,000 under the three-year program, with another $300,000 slated for the next and final payment. The city has matched that with about $30,000 a year.

It's unusual for a municipality to apply for such a grant: Denver is the only other city among the 85 recipients in 2007. The more typical recipients are nonprofit organizations that can do the job with lower overhead.

The other two Florida groups to get the grants were Volunteers of America offices, one in Jacksonville and one in Cocoa Beach.

Harrison Conyers, who writes grants for the veterans affairs office, said the city wants to provide a way for veterans to access a variety of services at one office.

"We see homeless veterans come in here every single day with health needs, economic needs, emotional needs, " Conyers said. "We didn't have the budget to help those needs."

The Labor Department funding doesn't help all those issues, but it provides a starting point.

The money pays for Swed and another case worker, Paul Thornton - a veteran - as well as for smaller items such as bus tickets and larger initiatives such as job training and bonding for workers who might have criminal issues in their past.


The issue of homeless veterans has long been seen as an important one for Jacksonville, which because of geography and demographics, attracts a larger-than-average number of such people. By some estimates, as much as 40 percent of the city's chronically homeless - those who are continuously homeless for a year or more - may be veterans.

Looking at everyone in the city who has been homeless, the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Jacksonville has found that 26 percent of the homeless population has served in the military, slightly more than the 23 percent of the national homeless population.

Veterans are more likely to appear among the chronically homeless because they're better equipped to survive such a life, said Diane Gilbert, executive director of the coalition, but such self-sufficiency also can lead to problems.

"Part of the problem of dealing with homeless veterans, " Gilbert said, "is that they have such strong survival skills, they're unwilling to ask for help."

The base reasons for veterans becoming homeless, though, are as varied as the individuals themselves.

"You never expect to need services like this, " said Zachary Neal, an Air Force veteran who said life was fine until, in one week, he lost his job because of the economy and his apartment because of a landlord dispute.

Calvin Reed, on the other hand, said he spent years spiraling downward after getting out of the Army, running into marital trouble and turning to drugs and alcohol.

"I went from being a nurse in the Army to digging potatoes in North Carolina, " the former sergeant said.

Neal and Reed are now enrolled in a janitorial training program at the Clara White Mission, training they found through the Veterans' Reintegration Program.


The city has an official partnership with the mission and Goodwill's Job Junction and works with a range of service providers, such as Trinity Rescue Mission.

Those organizations are able to help with things such as clothing and housing and skill training, while the city office focuses on working with clients to get them employed.

So far, 78 of the 169 homeless veterans admitted to the program have found employment, with an average wage of $9.43 an hour. Employers - of which the program is always seeking more - include retailers, warehouses, transportation companies and others.

The program isn't for everyone, Swed said. Almost half of those who are evaluated are rejected. Most often it's because of substance-abuse problems.

Even if a client is clean, he might not have the drive the program requires. The aim, Swed said, is to have the veterans set their own goals and work toward achieving them - something he makes sure up front the client is prepared to do.

"When I talk to clients who want to get into the program, I really grill them, " Swed said. "I'll apologize later if I've been too tough."


For someone like Fimbres, such toughness is one of the program's benefits.

"I'm used to having a first sergeant, " she said. "He really took the bull by the horns."

Fimbres ended up on the street a couple years after her discharge from the Army in 1992, the end of a five-year enlistment in which she served in Iraq.

"Bad things happened in Desert Storm, " she said. "War definitely changed me."

Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she bounced around a variety of jobs and relationships, unable to hold onto either for very long.

Out of work and broke, she hitchhiked across the country with her cat and boyfriend.

Coming from the desert, the couple decided they should go see the beach, setting up camp along the water's edge over the Fourth of July weekend.

When police ran them off the next morning, they headed downtown to a homeless shelter - and that's when Fimbres knew her life needed to change.

"If you had told me I'd end up like this, " she said, "I would have said you're crazy."

Since then, she has worked with Swed to establish goals and steps to meet them: Get a job. Save money. Get disciplined.

Her ultimate goal, written atop the entry sheet she filled out when he entered the program, is a bit more grandiose: "To own my own condo on the beach."

As she sits back and thinks about the changes in her life in the past few months, she cocks her head and says she might have another big goal as well.

"Ultimately, " she said, "ultimately I want to work with veterans, veterans who have been through what I have been through."


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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