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Hospital Provides a Haven for Homeless, Addicted Veterans

May 30, 1996|LAURA ACCINELLI

Scott McKissick walked out of prison last month and managed something he has never managed before: He didn't take a drink, and he didn't smoke dope.

This time, when he walked out of Chino State Penitentiary, he had a place to go. He had the Haven at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Los Angeles.

Discharged from the Army in 1980, McKissick has spent most of the years since in jail for crimes ranging from armed robbery to parole violation. When he wasn't behind bars, he was on the streets.

Wednesday, however, he was under the wind-tossed blossoms of the jacaranda trees on the grounds of the VA Medical Center, applauding the second-anniversary celebration of a pioneering program that has become a model for other centers across the country. Run by the Salvation Army and the Department of Veteran Affairs, the Haven is a 60-bed home for homeless vets who get not only short-term housing, but also substance abuse treatment and vocational services.

Foremost among Wednesday's ceremonies was the dedication of another 30 beds for vets who have received acute care and are ready to be discharged but don't have a home to recuperate in.

"A lot of guys just need some transition time between hospital bed and street. We're a safe spot between being on the streets and making it," said Carol Seiler, head of social services for the Salvation Army in Southern California. "The vets here begin to realize that they are not dirt, not junk, but sick people getting well."

About 200 people gathered to hear the Salvation Army Band and a series of speakers tout the innovative program that since 1994 has helped more than 800 vets, most of them Vietnam veterans. Of the 25,000 homeless people on county streets, about a third are veterans. Haven residents share rooms and prepare meals.

What has worked, said VA social worker Steve Berman, is the partnership of groups and a pooling of resources to help solve problems of poverty, crime and disease among a rising number of homeless veterans.

"There is hope. Hope is here," he said. "The best treatment against the cynicism and stresses of our lives in the cities today is renewed faith."

Alan Smith, 49, spent four years on an aircraft carrier in the Tonkin Gulf, became a heroin addict and eventually lost his Coast Guard captain's license. He "ended up homeless, wandering the streets, helpless, desperate," he said. After eight months at the Haven, he is taking UCLA Extension classes to become a drug and alcohol counselor. At the late-morning festivities, the newly formed Haven Choir stood to sing "I've Been Waiting on the Lord" and "Let the Walls Fall Down." Stephen Piper, 25, stood with his mates.

A general's aide during the Persian Gulf War, he never has forgotten the sight of Iraqi dead on the highway out of Kuwait. A commercial fisherman in Alaska, he one day hopped a plane to Los Angeles and wound up at MacArthur Park looking for drugs. The Haven took him in.

"Seeing everything firsthand was out of sight. People think the Persian Gulf War was, well, oil, but there were a lot of dead people over there," Piper said. "It was more gruesome than anyone here knows and, well, I've been sober for 77 days now."

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