At first it was comfortable living out of a Chevy Equinox.
Rannay Robinson moved bags filled with belongings so they blocked the windows and reclined her seats so she could sprawl out a little.
The 22-year-old college student and inactive member of the U.S. Army Reserve stands just 5-foot-2, so her sport-utility vehicle provided enough shelter for someone who had nowhere else to go.
But then came the knocks on the window by police and the fact that she had to constantly stay on the move to avoid people trying to repossess her vehicle. She also frequently had to choose between buying food or gas. Never knowing when she would have disposable income meant needing gas always trumped the need for food.
“I would have a really good day, and I would have to go back to my car and I would get really sad,” Robinson said.
It was a fast fall for someone crowned Miss Orange Park High School in 2013. She needed help and didn’t know where to get it.
She found it in Dee Quaranta, president and founder of the Northeast Florida Women Veterans association, who tries to help women like Robinson.
The 5-year-old organization finally moved May 12 into its own building west of downtown Jacksonville at 2133 Broadway Ave. Homeless female veterans looking for help have been coming by ever since, Quaranta said. Her best guess is she meets two new female veterans each week who need help finding a place to live.
“Usually when they come to me I don’t give them the paper that has all the phone numbers and say go call. I get on the phone and start calling,” Quaranta said.
More often than not, by the time the women arrive at the door they no longer have a roof over their heads and need somewhere to stay that night. Quaranta said there’s an immediate need for an emergency shelter in the city to house those veterans until they can figure out some sort of solution to get them back on their feet.
“Trust me, when I start working with a person, that’s going to take me several weeks to get that person connected to the services,” Quaranta said.
Plenty of resources are available for female veterans, she said, but it takes time to process all the paperwork to get them help. Little can be done right away, so the quicker the process starts, the quicker the help can come.
Quaranta works closely with city officials to put female veterans in touch with organizations that best fit their individual situations, and the city helps to guide them through the Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program.
“Our program should be the first stop for any homeless female veteran that wants the umbrella of support that we can offer to get them on the path to employment and off the streets,” said Bill Spann, director of the city’s Military Affairs and Veterans Department.
Veterans have to be homeless, living in a temporary shelter or face the impending loss of their housing through foreclosure or eviction to apply for the program, according to the city. The program is focused on employment, so it trains veterans to re-enter the job force through services including job placement, training, job development, career counseling and resume preparation.
The program partners with the Clara White Mission, CareerSource, the Emergency Services Homeless Coalition, Goodwill of North Florida and Dignity U Wear Foundation.
The Clara White Mission could have a few apartments available late this year at a building in Springfield, said mission CEO Ju’Coby Pittman. The building, which Pittman acquired years ago, had been used as temporary shelter for men who moved into the mission’s Veterans Villas apartments once that opened downtown this year. It needs some repairs, she said, but can work well for a few female veterans.
Pittman earlier looked into converting a pair of buildings in downtown’s LaVilla area into space for female veterans. That would have been a drawn-out project even if there were already money in hand, and the mission had spent years raising money for the apartments for male veterans.
CLOSE TO HOMELESS
Jejuana Johnson, 46, is a Navy veteran who lives with her 20-year-old daughter and 66-year-old mother at Ribault Bay Village — an off-base housing unit near Mayport Naval Station. She said all three will be homeless soon if they don’t get help.
They moved to Jacksonville in 2015 when her daughter was accepted at Trinity Baptist College on Hammond Boulevard. Her daughter had a $500 volleyball scholarship and lived in a dorm at first, and Johnson used money from the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay for the rest of the schooling and expenses — money she receives thanks to a 100 percent unemployable rating from the VA due to health issues.
Her daughter later transferred to Florida State College at Jacksonville where housing isn’t provided, so all three women started living under the same roof.
But all their bills are getting to be more than the family can handle, Johnson said.
She said she joined the Navy in 1998 because she was a single parent raised by a single parent, and she knew how hard that was on her mother. “I was going to be a lifer, that was what I wanted to do,” she said of the stability that comes with a career in the military.
But while on deployment on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, she started passing out and couldn’t complete the tour. By 2004 she was out of the service and going back to school.
Johnson said she received her college degree and then found a job at Strayer University, where she worked until her health got worse. Migraine headaches caused her to use up all her sick days, and eventually she had to quit.
By the time she moved to Jacksonville the bills pilled up to the point that they overwhelmed her. She said she’s been struggling to pay for her lease and on top of that has to rent her washer and dryer each month. She finds eviction notices tucked under her door and in her bushes, and last month plumbing from the unit above her started to flood her apartment.
“I try to make myself stay in bed all day so the day can rush by,” Johnson said of trying to avoid the bad news she gets almost daily.
She knows she’ll be homeless before long, so she started reaching out to veteran organizations for help. She wrote U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio after hearing how much passion he had for veterans when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. When she finally heard back from Rubio’s staff, the letter simply said there was nothing they could do to help.
“I don’t want them to put a lock on this house,” Johnson said. She said she knows that’s the next thing that’s coming.
LOCAL HELP IS OUT THERE
She is now working with a local organization to figure out what she’ll need to do if she gets locked out of her apartment for good.
“I have dealt with women like her every single month this year,” said Hellena Pugh of the Zahara Veterans Network, an organization that hosts monthly events geared toward female veterans to help them connect with each other based on their needs.
Pugh has been working with Johnson to link her with the right veteran groups if she becomes homeless. “Nobody should have to live with the threat of eviction hanging over her head,” Pugh said.
Pugh is working to raise money for the Zahara Veterans Network so it can have its own building where female veterans can congregate, but for now she’s partnering with the Five Star Veterans Center at 40 Acme St. to help the homeless veterans she comes across.
“We’ve housed women before and I’m sure we will again, but we don’t really see that many,” said Suzie Loving, administrative director at Five Star.
Five Star used to have a wing dedicated to women, but Loving said now staff refer them to one of the other organizations in town.
“The big thing we try not to do is dump someone out on the street,” Loving said.
Pugh said the idea is to find temporary housing for about six months at a time — or nine months if they have children because that’s about the length of the school year — so that they can find the benefits available to them.
For female veterans to ask for help handling homelessness it often takes a dire problem, especially if they’re raising children, said Dawn Gilman, CEO of the nonprofit Changing Homelessness.
“They are extremely concerned that they would get onto a DCF [Department of Children and Families] list and … have their children removed,” Gilman said. Rather than risk that, she said, the women will couch-surf in friends’ homes until they’re out of options.
Quaranta said couch surfing is a major issue in the community of homeless female veterans.
“I say if you don’t have a lease in your name, you are homeless,” she said. “When it comes to women they will live where they have to live — even if it’s in an abusive relationship — but if they had an opportunity they would definitely be on their own with their own lease taking care of themselves, but they don’t have a choice.”
Quaranta said she is offended when she hears female veterans are resourceful and that they’ll find a way. She said they shouldn’t have to compromise themselves or their bodies for a roof over their head.
Many of the homeless veterans Quaranta meets are running from an abusive relationship with nowhere else to go. She said when they find out it will take weeks to get through all the paperwork before they can qualify for temporary housing, they often return to the abusive domestic situation because it’s the only shelter available.
“What we need is something to fill the gap,” Quaranta said.
She said something as simple as a single room designated for female veterans who are waiting to get registered in particular programs would work.
By the time a case manager gets in touch with the veteran it could be weeks after the initial contact is made, and Quaranta said she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do while that person is forced to wait.
Although women in general are overshadowed by men in homelessness statistics, Gilman said female veterans turn up more often on lists of individuals that homeless agencies are trying to help.
The nonprofit Changing Homelessness, previously the Emergency Services and Homeless Coalition of Northeast Florida, is taking to the streets Aug. 16 to survey the homeless population and identify the homeless veterans downtown, at the Beaches and in Orange Park. Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up at http://bit.ly/2huLORK.
But Quaranta said it’s hard to quantify exactly how many female veterans are homeless in Jacksonville because they aren’t necessarily sleeping under bridges or in streets like their male counterparts.
MORE PROJECTS ON THE WAY
While female veterans have been on the agencies’ radar for a while, projects that could help them are still months from being completed.
The Sulzbacher Center for the homeless included space for female veterans in plans it spelled out in 2015 for its Sulzbacher Village apartment complex near the Northside’s Gateway shopping center. The complex will be a combination of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments for permanent residents and short-term units for women and families who need emergency housing.
The 70-unit project is designed to include eight apartments specifically for female veterans and their children. But money had to be raised for the $21 million project, and building permits weren’t issued until this year.
Tenants should be moving into the complex by April, said Sulzbacher CEO and President Cindy Funkhouser. She said the veterans’ units will be grouped together to help women who are working out issues from their time in the military.
Spann said the city works closely with VA programs like Supportive Services for Veteran Families and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing Program.
But Spann said homeless female veterans need to approach the city before going to the VA if they want help through the city’s reintegration program.
He said due to federal regulations, the city cannot provide help through their program if a veteran has already received a housing voucher through the VA.
But Quaranta said veterans need to be proactive before things go too far in the wrong direction in order to get the process in motion.
LIVING OUT OF A CAR
Quaranta said when she met Robinson in June, the reservist was lost and needed help desperately.
Robinson’s father was a single parent who died suddenly during her senior year in high school after a short battle with cancer. Her mother was never very “motherly.”
Robinson said the first time her mom told her she loved her was when she sent money from basic training after joining the Army Reserve straight out of high school. A few short years later she was divorced and struggling so much to make ends meet that she had to go inactive, which meant switching over to the Individual Ready Reserve.
“Everything happened so fast,” Robinson said.
The help started when a female police officer was called to a quiet neighborhood on Jacksonville’s Westside to check on a suspicious SUV parked on the side of the road. She found Robinson curled up inside with nowhere to go.
She said the officer gave her two pamphlets — one about domestic violence, the other about shelters. Robinson said at the time she didn’t have a phone, but she had a tablet that she used when she found wireless internet in fast-food parking lots.
The officer checked in for about four days to make sure everything was OK, and Robinson started educating herself on being homeless.
“Living in your car, you kind of start to examine life,” she said.
The lease at her apartment ended in the beginning of the year, so in February she was living with her grandmother in an elderly community. A minimum age requirement meant she had to sneak in at night and back out before dawn, but fear of getting her grandmother in trouble drove her to start living in her SUV.
“At first it was OK, it wasn’t bad,” Robinson said.
Her tag expired and she had no way to pay for the renewal. She worked part-time at Forever 21 and went to school at FSCJ, but the money coming in wasn’t enough for everything.
She finally reached out to the VA.
“I didn’t think they would actually help,” she said. But that’s where she was wrong.
The representative she talked with asked if she had been active-duty Army, and Robinson told her she was a reservist. From there she got about 12 telephone numbers for places that could offer help. After telling her story to a volunteer who answered at one of those numbers, things turned in the right direction.
Robinson said the volunteer left work to bring her gas money and then the two drove to Northeast Florida Women Veterans where Quaranta was waiting to give her clothes, a personal hygiene kit and a list of resources.
Quaranta took Robinson to a shelter, but the men intimidated her as she walked up to the front door.
“One guy asked if I had a man. Another guy asked if I had underwear on under my dress … I felt safer in my car,” she said.
When Quaranta found out Robinson was still living out of her car, she reached out to U.S. Rep. Al Lawson’s office.
After looking for help everywhere she could think of, Robinson finally found the help she was looking for.
Lawson’s assistant, Tony Hill, heard Robinson’s story and decided she was perfect for FSCJ’s Year Up program where students are matched up with companies for internships. They receive stipends where the money is taken away if they show up late or dress in inappropriate attire.
Robinson received a student loan a few weeks ago. She used some of the money to pay a portion of what was due on her car payments and some of the money to rent a room she found on Craigslist.
She’s been accepted into the Year Up program starting this fall and her goal is to now find a more permanent living situation.
Other women like Robinson live in cars and on the streets without the help they need.
Quaranta said she imagines herself in the shoes of female veterans who struggle to find a safe place to live.
The resources are out there, she said, it’s just a matter of getting the process going in the right direction.
Times-Union staff writer Steve Patterson contributed to this report.
Joe Daraskevich: (904) 359-4308