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Fargo's Project HART serves homeless veterans

FARGO -- Richard Johnson slept in basements and garages for 15 years before he woke up one morning in March and cried out for help.

Within hours, long-lost family members entered him in treatment for his heroin addiction. But when Johnson completed the program later that month and moved from the Twin Cities to Crookston, Minn., he wasn't ready to face life on his own.

"After I had the treatment I was still scared," Johnson, 51, recalled recently. "I still wasn't ready."

Then he found Project HART, a new transitional living center in Fargo for homeless veterans with a history of substance abuse or mental health problems.

For three months, Johnson had a place to stay and dietitian-approved meals while he learned to leave a life that revolved around finding his next high and enter one with unfamiliar tasks like maintaining a checkbook.

"You don't have to worry about where to get your next meal," said Johnson, who served in the Navy from 1973-1974. "Once that's taken care of, you can put your mind on other things."

Giving homeless veterans time to get their lives in order is what Centre Inc. and the Department of Veterans Affairs had in mind for HART, which stands for Homeless Assessment Rehabilitation and Treatment.

Centre built the facility next to its main building at 123 15th St. N. for about $4 million, including some space not used for HART. The federal VA chipped in about $1 million.

It's designed to provide veterans who are leaving treatment with structure and resources as they work their way toward independent living, said Mike Danielski, who serves as a liaison between HART and the VA.

"It's hard to overcome all the obstacles, and that's really what this is all about is overcoming obstacles," Danielski said.

HART accepted its first resident Dec. 20. It currently has about 30 residents.

Veterans who qualify can stay for up to two years.

The two-level building has a first-floor cafeteria with hot meals and a separate kitchen for residents who are ready to cook on their own.

The second floor has 12 dormitory rooms, most with bunk beds, desks and lockers for up to four people.

The furnishings are sparse. Televisions are in short supply, and there's little artwork for the walls.

Keith Gilleshammer, executive director for Centre Inc., said he hopes donations will help make the place feel more like home and provide the veterans with something to do.

Three State Bank and Trust employees, Disabled American Veterans and Kallod Carpet recently chipped in to provide a pool table and foosball table, for example.

"The thing that's hardest (for people in recovery) is finding things to do with your time that are enjoyable," Johnson said. "You're not used to doing things that are enjoyable."

Johnson said he reconnected with his two grown children and other family members as he went through treatment and during his time at Project HART.

Late last month, Johnson moved to an apartment in Crookston, where he has family.

His nieces shopped at rummage sales for furnishings, and now the place looks like something out of Better Homes and Gardens magazine, he said.

"What I thought I didn't have, I've got an abundance of it," Johnson said. "Before I didn't want them to see, I didn't want them to get involved in it."

Johnson said he was still nervous about the move, but felt better with support from HART.

"I can always come back," he said.

The Forum and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.