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Group Helps Veterans Get a Fresh Start

The U.S. Vets transition program provides housing, counseling and career guidance to help men and women get back on track.

August 03, 2003|Allison Hoffman | Times Staff Writer

Army veteran Jerry Ford used to be unemployed, homeless and alone on the streets of Los Angeles.

"I got involved with crack cocaine," he said bluntly. Ford sought treatment for his drug addiction through the Veterans Administration, but after he completed a 90-day program, he still had nowhere to sleep. A caseworker referred Ford to the fledgling L.A. Vets transition program in Inglewood, where he was given housing, counseling and career guidance.

Today, Ford, 50, remains sober, solvent, and employed -- as the site manager for the residential facility where he first received housing.

"So often people go into these programs, and they get clean," he said. "But they still need a place to shower, a place to sleep, a place to get themselves cleaned up and back into the world. This is a place where they can do that."

Now called U.S. Vets, the program provides homeless veterans with a supervised environment in which they can reestablish the patterns of a stable life -- from getting up at a regular hour each morning to paying monthly rent -- under the direction of caseworkers, career advisors and legal specialists.

It has expanded beyond the Inglewood location to include a center in Long Beach and partner locations in Las Vegas, Houston and Honolulu.

The Los Angeles facility, which serves as many as 450 veterans at a time, is housed in a converted dormitory tucked into the semi-industrial neighborhood between Los Angeles International Airport and the San Diego Freeway.

Three hundred of the veterans are part of the flagship long-term residency program, in which residents are assigned to six-person suites, with two units set aside for 12 women. They pay controlled rents to a landlord agency administered by Century Housing, a private development company that owns the residence-hall property. The system allows residents to establish a credit history, as well as responsible habits.

One hundred residents are enrolled in a 90-day program intended to provide immediate shelter and food for homeless veterans, who may enroll in the long-term program when they graduate. Fifty beds are set aside for veterans facing medical or legal hurdles, from unpaid fines to back child support.

All of the veterans have access to career counseling services, ranging from Internet-search training to resume development, and are given individual voicemail numbers for prospective employers.

U.S. Vets also seeks to establish relationships with local companies, such as the Playa Vista development company and Marriott International.

"Employers can come here and they know they have prescreened candidates and reliable references," said Shana Campbell, the career service director. "These people aren't just out there on their own."

Ernest Dotson, a 50-year-old who had served in the Navy, moved in after he lost his job at a hotel. Dotson had spent years trying to establish his own fiberglass-model business, and wanted to find work building prototype airplane models.

The team at U.S. Vets walked him through the process of landing a job, he said.

"I didn't know that I could put all the stuff I did for the business on my resume," he said, proudly adding that he is now in the final stages for a job at an aerospace company.

"We recognize they were capable riflemen, or mechanics, or what have you," said Col. Joseph N. Smith, a retired Marine who co-founded U.S. Vets in 1992. "And that capability to get off the street, into work and out where life can be enjoyed -- it's still there."

Smith developed the concept for U.S. Vets with Harry Pregerson, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The two had established the Haven, a shelter for homeless veterans, with funding from the VA in the late 1980s, but found the administration struggling to cope with growing numbers of chronically homeless veterans.

"The VA was very good at helping veterans who had jobs or pensions," said Smith, who is the director of the Los Angeles County VA.

"But they needed help dealing with the homeless."

Linda Boone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C., agreed, adding that many charitable groups that have served homeless veterans for years, such as the Salvation Army, were unable to address the problem of an enormous, and aging, Vietnam-era population.

"U.S. Vets is totally unique in its scope and in its political support," Boone said. "They've been able to get partnerships with state and local governments, with the VA, with federal agencies that other groups couldn't get to the table."

She attributed that success in part to the U.S. Vets model. It emphasizes making veterans independent of care organizations, reducing the drain on overall resources for troubled veterans, and charging veterans for housing and services while they are still in the care program.

"A lot of people don't like the concept of charging needy people rent," Boone says. "But look at the outcomes -- it works."

U.S. Vets has helped 2,000 veterans find jobs and housing since 1993 through the Los Angeles facility. And once they have left, Smith said, 75% of the program's graduates stay off the streets. "It puts structure back in their lives," he says. "For them to get up in the morning, to get dressed, and go eat breakfast before they go to work is a first step toward getting on with enjoying life. Because life ought to be enjoyed."

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