After his life was uprooted, John Bridges made a two-hour drive from Daytona to Gainesville.
He finally took his foot off the gas pedal and parked his silver Subaru Legacy in an empty space. Clothes were scattered across the backseat and personal belongings filled his trunk.
He would live in his car for the next two months — through the hot days and the cold nights. Although his foot no longer pressed a pedal, he said he was braking more than ever.
“I never imagined myself being a ‘homeless’ anything — at all. It bothered me, bothers me still,” Bridges said.
Then Bridges, who left the Air Force after six years of service in 2006, served five years in the Marine Corps from 2009 to 2014 and deployed once to Afghanistan, came across VETSPACE, an organization that provides housing to homeless veterans in Gainesville.
The nonprofit organization began in 2003 and dedicates itself to helping homeless veterans and their families. It consists of five programs, each providing transitional housing and assistance in veteran’s regaining their stability.
With many new programs developing nationwide to assist veterans with healthcare, mental health, housing, education, disabilities and job opportunities, in Gainesville, VETSPACE is one of the handful of programs that work with veterans in all of these areas – whether directly or through referrals.
It does this even when workers have to go out and find veterans like Bridges who need the services.
“We go out into the woods, to GRACE marketplace, and ironically, a lot of vets don’t want to come in,” said Eric McLarthy, lead case manager at VETSPACE. “They want to stay in a tent and it’s totally up to them. But as long as we’re offering the service, that’s what’s important.”
Bridges, however, didn’t want to live in his car, much less a tent. He applied for housing with VETSPACE, and it approved his application after he spent two months parked outside of GRACE Marketplace.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to work out for Bridges, who was once a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University studying unmanned aerial vehicles. Housing wasn’t an issue then; the Post-9/11 GI Bill paid for his education and his Basic Allowance for Housing paid for rent.
However, when Bridges decided to leave school, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) no longer paid for his rent. He searched for jobs but could not find a viable option. He was also beset with personal problems; his wife left him and took his 3-year-old daughter with her.
Nowadays, Bridges is trying to rebuild his life at the only place he can call home for now; the Joseph ‘Mac’ McMahon Veterans Residence. It is funded through the Veterans Administration Homeless Grant and Per Diem program, in which the VA pays $40 per veteran to VETSPACE to ensure they have a home.
For him, home is a blue building with red doors and a grey roof, where four white chairs with red cushions adorn the porch and two blue cubic columns support the building with the number 3901 stacked vertically on the side. It is one he shares with eight other veterans.
“I don’t know where anything else like this exists at all,” Bridges said about his new home.
Veterans such as Bridges, however, don’t just receive a place to live at VETSPACE, but services to get back on their feet. Bridges said a case manager checks up on them to make sure they are looking for work, going to VA hospital appointments and taking care of house chores.
McLarthy, the lead case manager, said they make sure that all the Individual Service Plans are up to date — the ISPs are reviewed every six months and case managers work with veterans to ensure they are saving 75 percent of their income, adding new goals or being provided with anything else needed to get them back into society.
Bridges lives with Michael Myers and Bryan Dukes at VETSPACE. Dukes, who served in the Air Force for four years, wound up at the home after two surgeries — one for his gallbladder and the other for an inflammatory intestine — rendered him unable to work.
Myers, 60, became homeless after losing several businesses. While he likes VETSPACE, Myers said the three-person staff could use more volunteers.
“Each and every veteran is an individual case. Individuals require individual everything,” he said. “Sometimes things are constant, but individuals aren’t normal.”
Even though both Myers and Bridges (they both did not want to be photographed) found housing through VETSPACE, Myers said there are many veterans who slip between the cracks.
“Some (homeless veterans) have lost sight, have lost hope in their lives,” Myers said. “They become satisfied with what is already available. We really need to be helping veterans help themselves.”
He said it is never too late for homeless veterans to lift their noses off the ground after falling and stand tall once more.
“If I can do it at 60, it’s never too late,” Myers said. “One thing you learn when serving is your brother is always your brother. And that you can never give up. So never give up.”
Myers wants to give back to veterans after he gets back on his feet.
“We stood for our country, and a lot of us come back and our country doesn’t stand for us,” he said. “I think that’s changing and still needs to change a lot.”
Other programs that assist homeless veterans with getting housed in Gainesville include the HONOR Center and the Volunteers for America’s Gainesville Veterans Program. These programs temporarily or permanently house homeless veterans and help them access employment, address health concerns and regain stability.
Bridges is working on gaining this stability, and has done so by recently finding a job as a mail handler at the post office. He also has thoughts about attending Santa Fe College to receive a certificate in welding.
For now, Bridges said he is on edge about his living situation, but hopes to change that soon.
“I want to get my own place and start over,” he said.
For more information on veteran’s services, go to: http://www.northflorida.va.gov/services/homeless/