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Friendship Place is on a mission to help homeless veterans

Air Force veteran Robert “Bobby” Gerino in the Frederick, Md., townhouse he rents, with one of the hot peppers he grows. Gerino found the townhouse with the help of Friendship Place, a nonprofit in D.C. and a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

When he served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s, Robert “Bobby” Gerino took solace in the belief that he’d probably survive the first stages of a nuclear war. It was his job to plot the mission that American B-58 pilots would fly from their base in Little Rock to the Soviet Union.

“It was really kind of cool,” Gerino said. “I worked right out of the atomic bomb shelter. Anything incoming, I would have a pretty good chance of surviving. That was comforting.”

Fifty years later, Gerino needed comfort of a different sort, after losing his house when a family member turned against him, he said. Homeless, he found help at Friendship Place, a Washington nonprofit that offers programs for veterans in need of housing assistance.

“When I joined the Air Force, the last thing I ever had in my mind was that someday I’d need their help,” said Gerino, 77. “I’ve always made great money and been able to take care of things. But then one day, all of sudden, I can’t take care of myself. And I was scared, to be honest with you. I didn’t know what was going to happen with me.”

Turned out of his home at Christmas in 2018, Gerino moved in with a friend in Northern Virginia. As supportive as his friend was, Gerino knew he couldn’t stay indefinitely. And neither could Gerino’s wife, Mary. Ex-wife, actually. For complex reasons, the two had gotten divorced. They were apart — Mary was homeless, too, living in her car — but they remained as committed to each other as ever.

Then Gerino heard about Friendship Place, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual reader fund drive. Having served in the military, Gerino was able to qualify for a program that provides up to 50 percent of a veteran’s rent money for up to 24 months.

Emily Greene manages the program for Friendship Place. She said veterans experience higher rates of homelessness than others. That can be due to post-traumatic stress disorder or difficulty in readjusting to civilian life.

Friendship Place administers two programs aimed specifically at those who have served in the military. One provides quick funding to get veterans off the street and into rapid rehousing, aiming to stabilize them within 90 days.

That program wasn’t quite right for Gerino, who after leaving the Air Force had held good, well-paying jobs, from working in a high-end Tysons restaurant to running his own limo service. But health woes and his family problems knocked him for a loop.

He connected with Friendship Place. Greene searched for apartments in Frederick, Md., for Bobby and Mary. She found an end-unit townhouse that would accommodate the couple, who moved there in April 2019. The program, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, pays half their rent. (Gerino said the pandemic extended the 24-month coverage for some recipients.)

“Without Friendship Place, I would not have made it,” Gerino said. “I can’t tell you how wonderful this group is. They’ve done so much for Mary and I.”

Said Mary: “We’re just blessed we had this place to come to.”

Gerino hopes to soon be on his feet financially. Ever the entrepreneur, he’s been growing hot peppers on the deck and in the backyard of the townhouse. He hopes to soon launch Uncle Bobby’s Exotic Hot Peppers.

“I grow these and I make rubs,” he said, lifting up a plastic bin of pale orange peppers.

Gerino’s business card lists the different types of peppers he grows, their names redolent of the punch they pack: Carolina reaper, yellow brain attack, death spiral, dragon’s breath.

After picking and drying them, Gerino grinds the peppers to powder and combines the powder in various concoctions. (“I make my own Old Bay,” he said.) He hopes to soon get health department approval to sell his creations at farmers markets around town.

That wouldn’t have been possible without a home, without Friendship Place.

Said Gerino: “It was the greatest thing that ever happened in my life, that when I needed something, they were there.”

Helping Hand

Last year, Friendship Place assisted 500 veterans and their families. Your donation can help it continue that work. To contribute to Friendship Place online by credit card, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, send a check to Friendship Place, 3655 Calvert St. NW, Washington, DC 20007.

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