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Jacksonville Coalition Working To Reduce Veteran Homelessness To ‘Functional Zero’

Jessica Palombo

Being a military veteran is one of the factors that make it more likely a person will become homeless.

In Jacksonville, it’s estimated one-in-10 homeless people are vets. That’s fewer than five years ago, thanks to local groups using federal grants to get veterans under roofs.

Now, one of those groups is embarking on an ambitious goal of sheltering more than one homeless veteran every day this year.

Lou Dougherty works for Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Northeast Florida.

It’s just before lunch in Hemming Park. A group of mothers is doing yoga with their infants. People are ordering from the coffee trailer next to brightly decorated yarn-wrapped trees. And Dougherty is scanning the square for faces he recognizes.

“This is usually a good place to find guys and come down and talk to ‘em,” Dougherty said.

Near the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Dougherty sees someone new.

The man says his name is Daniel. He lifts his t-shirt to reveal several scars. Shrapnel, he says. Dougherty asks him where he was when that happened.

“It was during the fall of Fallujah, [Iraq],” Daniel tells him.

These days, Daniel says, his military training comes in handy when he meets the enemy. He nods as Dougherty hands him a can of bug spray.

Daniel says a spray to the eyes has helped him escape several would-be attackers. Back in Iraq, though, three of his friends weren’t so lucky. He says they were walking together when a bomb went off and killed them.

“I’m dealing with a lot. I wake up screaming,” Daniel said.

Daniel says he gets some work, and he’s saving up for his own place. Dougherty gives him a business card just in case, and tells Daniel to call if he decides he wants help.

As he walks away, Dougherty scrawls down Daniel’s name in a notepad. He says it will be added to the Homeless Coalition’s master list.

Homeless Coalition CEO Dawn Gilman says she believes there are 133 names on that list.

She says, with two federal Veteran’s Administration grants, the coalition’s working toward what it calls “functional zero” homelessness. That would mean so few veterans are homeless that anyone who loses his home suddenly can get a new one within a month. But Gilman says there’s no cookie-cutter solution that helps all homeless vets. She says it’s a more diverse group than most people realize.

Gilman said, “We are seeing a higher number of families, sometimes female veterans, with young kids, in Duval County. And that does not fit the stereotype, even when you say, ‘homeless veteran,’ of who someone might think of.”

She says anyone who suspects a homeless veteran might need help is urged to call the Homeless Coalition at (904) 354-1100 ext. 301 or email Coalition team members can go to where any homeless veteran is in Duval, Clay or Nassau county. 

Jessica Palombo supervises local news gathering and production, podcasts and web editorial content for WJCT News, ADAPT and Jacksonville Today. She is an award-winning writer and journalist with bylines including NPR, Experience Magazine, and The Gainesville Sun. She has a master’s degree in broadcast and digital journalism from Syracuse University and is an alumna of the University of Florida. A nearly lifelong resident of Jacksonville, she considers herself lucky to be raising her own children in her hometown. Follow Jessica Palombo on Twitter: @JaxJessicaP