It was never supposed to be a long-term commitment.
When Connie Blaney and her husband, Bill, founded Liberty Manor, a residence for homeless veterans, her intention was to plant the seed. She would get the nonprofit up and running, then turn it over to the community.
That was in March 2006. Liberty Manor has since expanded to three locations in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas. It serves about 50 men.
And Blaney is still in charge.
She has no intention of walking away from this venture, she says. The need is too dire. About one-quarter of the nation's population is homeless, and that holds true in the Tampa Bay area.
"Unacceptable," Blaney says. "They served our country and then we treat them like second-class citizens. It's wrong on every level."
She wants others to share her outrage. Get involved. Give support through time or money. She believes a civilian effort is mandatory to help fix a problem that shouldn't be here in the first place.
She's proposing an "Adopt a Vet" initiative for which individuals, religious congregations and community groups make a commitment to help Liberty Manor residents with transportation, food, friendship. Anything to help transition them back into a society that has abandoned or shunned them.
Blaney was first exposed to the veterans' crisis when she served on the board of the Hillsborough County Homeless Coalition. Once she heard about the number of homeless vets, she couldn't get it out of her head -- especially since her own life was so abundantly blessed. She was a former administrator for the Hillsborough County Public Defender's Office, and Bill was vice president for an electronic imaging company.
They spent $168,000 of their own money to buy a two-story Section 8 house in a north Tampa neighborhood on Ninth Street off Nebraska Avenue. What they didn't plan for was the additional $85,000 they needed to bring the eight-bedroom, five-bath house up to code.
Liberty Manor was designed for the men who don't meet government guidelines for assistance. The Veterans Administration only provides housing for those diagnosed with a severe mental health problem or who suffer from substance abuse; if you're just down on your luck, you're out of luck.
That nagged at the Blaneys. Their fathers served in the military, so they both had an affinity for veterans. They came up with the idea to establish a comfortable home for men who had lost their way, providing a roof over their heads and access to programs that meet developmental and social needs. The residents pay $125 a week from their military pensions. There's been no hike in rent since it opened.
For the original home, Blaney put a lot of tender loving care into the decorating. She was so determined to create a homey atmosphere that she took the chandelier out of her own house and had it installed in the living room.
"In the beginning, we wanted this to be transitional," she says. "But many of the men consider this their home, and they don't want to leave. This is the only family some of them have had in years. They feel safe and loved here."
The couple, who had retired from their professions, had to return to work due to the economic downturn. They can't give as much personal financial support or time to the organization, so the "Adopt-a-Vet" program would ease a lot of their burden.
A few church groups heeded Blaney's call and are stepping up to help.
Van Dyke United Methodist Church in Lutz put Liberty Manor on its annual Carefest list.
Every year, volunteers pick one of several projects to devote a day's worth of service. "It was no problem getting people to sign up for this one," says Steve Batchellor, executive director of outreach and missions. "We have a lot of veterans in our congregation who immediately were drawn to this."
On the first Saturday in February, a church team built a garden with donated supplies behind the Ninth Street house. That parcel of land is carefully tended by the residents, who grow herbs and vegetables year-round. For Lee Stafford, 65, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the Army, the garden serves an even more important purpose.
"Keeps you from thinking too much about your own problems," he says. "When you work in Mother Nature, you have no time for stress and anxiety. You release it on the plants and vegetables. It kind of takes over for a while."
A team from Grace Family Church in Tampa visits the second Saturday of every month to help clean rooms, drive the residents to the grocery store, do laundry or just offer companionship. It doesn't take a huge effort, but the impact is substantial.
"It's eye-opening," says member April Dean. "Some of these men were living on the streets with nowhere to go. They were simply forgotten. It breaks the heart."
At first, Dean says, it requires stepping out of "your comfort zone." But it doesn't take long to build relationships. Some members even come back more often.
"They have wonderful stories to tell," she says. "These are men who fought for our country. They made a difference for us to have the freedom we enjoy now. I feel blessed to get the opportunity to be part of this organization."
This is how Blaney has always felt. Visit one of the Liberty Manor residences, she says, and you will understand. She never envisioned she would be doing this kind of work at this stage in her life, and that this project would become so overwhelming. But she has no regrets.
"We have Bronze Star medalists, we have Purple Heart recipients," she says. "They did their part for us. Now it's our turn to do for them."
TBO.com, search keyword: LIBERTY MANOR, to see a WFLA-TV report on the program and to learn how you can get involved.
Veterans Community Cookout
WHEN: Noon to 2 p.m., the third Friday of every month
WHERE: 10015 N. Ninth St., Tampa
WHAT: Free BBQ lunch (pork, chicken, brisket, hot dogs) with all the trimmings. Open to the public; a get-together with local veterans and Liberty Manor residents. Music and games included.
SPONSORED BY: Five and Two, a faith-based food ministry
INFORMATION: Call (813) 900-9422 or email [email protected]