FORT WORTH -- In May, Eric Gardner loaded his belongings into his Dodge Ram pickup and drove from Arlington to Fort Worth.
The 50-year-old former Army National Guardsman parked outside the Salvation Army shelter on East Lancaster Avenue and walked through the front door.
"I need some help," he announced.
Gardner had lost his warehouse job and, soon afterward, his apartment. His unemployment check was not enough to pay rent and keep his truck, which he figured he would need to have any hope of finding a new job. He had health problems, including diabetes, hypertension and severe acid reflux that made it hard to keep food and liquids down.
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Gardner got the help he needed and today is on the verge of moving into a home as the first client accepted into the Salvation Army's housing program for veterans. It is the organization's first such program in Texas.
The organization received a $333,000 grant Oct. 1 to place 28 disabled and chronically homeless veterans in housing with long-term case management. About 15 percent of homeless people in Tarrant County are believed to be veterans, according to the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.
Gardner has completed a program on money management, job training and life skills, and the grant will pay his rent for two years. Gardner was the first person selected because he seemed well-suited to succeed, said Katrice Goodman-Madison, a caseworker.
"He has proven himself by trying to work to get back on his feet," she said.
'I didn't want to
Gardner, a New Orleans native, moved to Fort Worth when he was 9. In 1982, he joined the Army National Guard and served for six years. A ruptured disk in his lower back led to persistent pain that caused him to end his service, he said.
For years, Gardner, a single father of five, said he worked mostly manual-labor jobs, including driving a forklift or stacking boxes in warehouses. He was homeless for a time in 2002 but found steady employment and got into an apartment, he said.
But in August 2009, he lost his job. His employer warned Gardner and his co-workers that layoffs might happen, but they thought they would be weeks or months away.
"They called me into work the next day and gave us big brown folders and said 'See ya,'" Gardner said. "And no one else was hiring."
Gardner said he worked temporary jobs for the next year to scrape together money to pay bills but eventually fell behind. That's when he turned to the Salvation Army.
"It wasn't easy," he said. "I prayed to the Lord because I didn't want to come here this way."
Living in a shelter stirs feelings of despair, he said. His two high-school-age children could no longer visit him on weekends, since they cannot stay at the shelter.
"You come in and your feelings are so downward. ... You lose everything," he said. "Then you get yourself together. Once you get yourself together, you can actually do something."
Getting out and
The goal of the Salvation Army program is to help the veterans become self-sufficient after two years, said Beckie Wach, the shelter director. The organization is searching its emergency shelter for other veterans who would make good clients for the program.
Gardner's caseworkers are helping him apply for disability assistance, though he says he would prefer to work.
Regardless, Gardner has wasted no time finding an apartment, already touring five complexes. He looks forward to loading his possessions back into his truck on moving day.
"I'm excited," he said. "I'm ready to get out there and get on with my life."
Alex Branch, 817-390-7689