Another veteran had called for help, and John Keaveney was on his way to see him. The man was just out of prison, off drugs and afraid of backsliding.
"I've got to get him housing, and a job," the determined 42-year-old Vietnam veteran said, "or his chances of staying clean and sober are very limited. And he'll be homeless."
Keaveney's interest was not casual--he had been there himself.
During his years in Vietnam, between 1969 and 1972, Keaveney changed from a willing recruit into a heroin addict angry about the public scorn shown vets and the few veterans programs available to help him, he said one recent morning. By his account, he spent most of the next 11 years "on the street . . . doing a lot of heroin," and in and out of jail. "It was a vicious cycle."
Keaveney is a janitorial supervisor at the Veterans Administration in Westwood. But the work that means the most to him is done on his own time, as a veterans' advocate.
His life turned around in 1983, when he was facing prison again and a judge sent him instead to a VA rehabilitation program called New Directions. The experience changed him, and ever since, he has been trying to help others rebuild their lives.
Shad Meshad, founder of the Westchester-based Vietnam Veterans Aid Foundation, remembers the old Keaveney. "He was one of the most angry and dangerous veterans I had ever seen. He almost killed me in 1982."
Meshad at that time headed a veterans counseling program, and one day when Keaveney became angry with him, "he took me hostage, with a knife, and almost executed me," Meshad recalled.
Meshad survived the ordeal without harm, but never forgot Keaveney. "The change in him is a miracle," he said. "He's on a mission like nobody I've seen in a long time."
The change began with the New Directions program. "It made you take an honest look at yourself," Keaveney said in his Scottish accent. He was born and raised in Scotland, but became a U.S. citizen while serving in the Army. "They didn't care if you had an unhappy childhood. That was then. This is now. They didn't care if you were in Vietnam and wanted to use that as a crutch. That was over."
When Keaveney emerged, he sought to make amends to Meshad. "I don't think I accepted it for a few years," Meshad said. "But he kept coming around. He kept saying he wanted to do something to address the homeless issue. So I challenged him. I said I can't do it all. You focus on it."
Keaveney did. While some estimates of the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles County are as low as 17,000, Keaveney believes the figure is double or even triple that. Some live in the bushes "within 100 yards of the VA," he said. "You got them on the beach or you go downtown, they're in the doorways." After New Directions closed in 1989, Keaveney and two other veterans revived it as a private nonprofit organization to help homeless veterans find housing, jobs or drug treatment.
Now they are negotiating to lease an empty building on VA property in Westwood to house up to 150 homeless vets, and are raising money to fund the project. In the meantime they plan to open a small place in Venice to house up to eight veterans.
Keaveney is also organizing a veterans' march on Washington this summer, repeating a soldiers' march to the nation's capital in 1932 to demand housing, jobs and aid.
"I have a mania about the \o7 deal\f7 ," he said, meaning the country's obligation to its veterans. "If they're going to die for you . . . you have to help them. If you don't, you nullify the deal."
Vets deserve help even if they become criminals, Keaveney said, noting that there are 120,000 in the nation's jails and prisons. He is convinced most are there because of drugs, and turned to drugs or alcohol because of post-traumatic stress.
Sherman Johnson, the 41-year-old Vietnam veteran Keaveney was driving to Hollywood to meet, had just served time for robbery. Keaveney had met him briefly before Johnson's incarceration. But on seeing him, Johnson hugged Keaveney like an old friend.
While Keaveney quietly listened, Johnson relived Vietnam, and his years after, including time spent on the street, dealing drugs and committing crimes.
The contrast between the two was striking--Johnson in jeans, talking in a monotone, and Keaveney in a jacket and tie, his voice upbeat, full of life.
"I was an OK guy before I went into the service," Johnson said, his voice trailing off.
"Before this week's out I'll know about the lease of a house, for seven to eight veterans," Keaveney said. "A beautiful house. Brand new furniture, it'll have everything. There's going to be a spot for you, if you want it. But you got to be willing to stay the course."
"Guys like myself died," Johnson said of Vietnam. "I died in a different way. . . . I wonder sometimes why God spared me."
Silence filled the room. "Sherman!" Keaveney said. Johnson's head shot up. Keaveney was smiling.
"The disgrace is not in the falling," he said, "but in the failure to rise."