It was only a few months ago, Ernest Ward says, that his bed at night was a bench outside the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System in Miami’s health district.
A radio transmission operator who spent more than a year braving gunfire in Chu Lai, Vietnam, with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade, Ward says he returned home in ’70 toting demons and addictions. They chased him for decades around Orlando and finally last year down to Miami, where he says “the bottom fell out.”
“Things didn’t happen the way I thought they would,” Ward, 68, says in a gravelly voice. “But things change.”
Ward traveled to the Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Center on Flagler Street, where in November he was referred to a veterans shelter at Camillus House’s Allapattah headquarters newly funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Ward is now among some three dozen former servicemen receiving therapy with trained case managers while making their temporary homes in a space carved out from the shelter’s recently emptied residential treatment facility.
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Pretty soon, they’re getting new digs.
On Tuesday, Camillus House is unveiling its new Somerville Veterans Residence on Northwest Third Court in Overtown. The complex just west of I-95 previously housed families grappling with homelessness and substance abuse. But the HUD grant that funded the program expired, and the kids were all grown up, so now the building is being tailored to fit the needs of vets through an $8 million renovation.
“The idea here is to give back a little dignity,” said Eddie Gloria, Camillus House’s chief operating officer. “It’s just a way to say thank you for your service.”
Work is still ongoing. On Thursday, crews milled about the open air courtyard in the building’s brick-lined atrium. But the heart of the complex, an eighth-floor conference room converted into a shelter overlooking downtown, could be ready as soon as next month.
In small rooms, each outfitted with two bunk beds and roll-away doors, clients referred through the Veterans Administration will have a place to stay while continuing therapy for ailments like PTSD and drug addiction until they’re ready to move out. Potentially, with the help of rental vouchers provided through the county’s public housing division, those who graduate will be able to find a place in the dozens of transitional and permanent housing units scattered throughout the lower seven floors.
Gloria said the building, large enough to house 100, is being specially outfitted for veterans, and by next year should be lined on the ground floor by old residential units converted into offices for social agencies. The complex will also include a garden, a courtyard with a large blank wall for outdoor movie screenings, a physical therapy center and possibly a kennel.
Some of the veterans currently staying at Camillus House’s Allapattah campus will likely make the move when the new shelter opens. Others, like Gregory Cupca, say they’d like to come back to help others.
Cupca, 50, came to Camillus House around the new year after spending weeks living out of his car and grappling with alcoholism and a crack cocaine addiction. A former Air Force cook who says he once made eggs for Ronald Reagan during the president’s visit to his Indiana base, he’s now months removed from his last drop, working the graveyard shift at a Steak ’n Shake and trying to work his way into a regular gig at the kitchens in Marlins Park.
Cupca plans to move out soon for cozier accommodations at Harding Village, a Carrfour complex on Miami Beach that reserves units for veterans. But he hopes he’ll get a shot to come back to Somerville in order to help others.
“If I weren’t here, I’d probably be in jail. Or dead,” Cupca says.
The climb back to stability is hard. As of Friday, Camillus’ case managers weren’t sure where Ward was, since he’d suddenly stopped sleeping at the shelter. But early in the week, Ward was hopeful, confident even, that he’ll succeed and make the move to Somerville.
“It’s gonna be real nice for the vets,” he said. “Just like a unit.”