With Veterans Day approaching, Richard Caines wanted to ensure that at least a few of Los Angeles' homeless, those who protected our nation and later suffered misfortune, were not forgotten.
Caines manages a transitional housing program for veterans along skid row and recently arranged a star-studded luncheon to thank those who once served in uniform.
Actors Jack Klugman and James Avery, comedian JoAnne Worley and singer Connie Stevens were among the celebrities who visited to hand out certificates and dine with the more than 30 program participants.
"I can't tell you how great it was," said Julie Connella, senior director of programs and services at Weingart Center Assn., which oversees the veterans program. "The men really enjoyed it and felt truly appreciated."
The heart of Weingart's operation at San Pedro and 5th streets is a converted 10-story hotel with 614 beds used to accommodate homeless men and women, parolees and others.
On the fifth floor, Caines and his small staff work with displaced veterans to restore stability to chaotic lives. The Veterans Affairs-funded effort provides meals, shelter, counseling and other programs to address drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness and financial problems.
"They're like everyone else, with hopes, dreams and aspirations. But somewhere along the line, they were not able to rebound from some sort of setback," said Caines, a 6-foot, 225-pound ex-Marine with a shaved head and ready smile.
"When I listen to a lot of these vets, you can trace a lot of it to the way they were raised," he said. "The primary trauma they experienced occurred before they got into the service. Either coming through the foster care system or having parents who were substance abusers or violent."
It's estimated that in Los Angeles County more than 27,000 homeless people served in the armed forces. Nationally, half of all homeless veterans have substance abuse problems and 45% suffer from mental illness, according to the Weingart Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty.
Caines, 47, said participants are referred to a nearby VA clinic for treatment of substance abuse and to get medications needed to control conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Veterans receive general relief assistance while they undergo job training or seek employment.
"Some guys really want to get back to work," Caines said. "They feel a loss of manhood without a paycheck."
But for some, work is not in their future, he said, referring to those with mental problems.
Former sailor Leon Aaron, 51, said alcohol, cocaine and marijuana caused him to lose a good oil industry job along with his wife and children 15 years ago. Aaron said he's been drug-free for 16 months, is taking computer and life-skills classes and is close to landing a job at a medical warehouse.
"This place helps you to look at yourself, to define yourself," he said. "For me, it's been fulfilling."
Participants can stay in the transition program for up to two years, provided they remain sober and nonviolent, take their medication, meet weekly with a case manager and adhere to a midnight curfew. Those enrolled in the program are randomly drug-tested.
Each person is required to save 75% of his income. When they cash their checks, participants must return to Caines with a money order, which he notes in a ledger and locks in a safe.
He tells of one veteran whose marijuana use prompted his fiancee to kick him out of her home. Wanting to reunite with his child's mother, the man entered the Weingart program, stopped using drugs and found a job as a security guard at a department store. After 16 months, he has saved more than $10,000.
Those who receive a standard monthly welfare payment of $221 must also save. The idea is to teach them discipline while providing them money for transportation and work clothes.
"It's not a huge amount of money, but we're trying to show them that with any money you make, if you use it correctly, you'll have options," Caines said.
Caines, a former schoolteacher who has worked for social service agencies for more than a dozen years, said the program has assisted nearly 1,400 homeless veterans since it began five years ago. Currently, 55 of the 95 beds set aside for veterans are occupied.
As a Marine radar operator, Caines never saw combat. But his older brother received major injuries in Vietnam, was exposed to Agent Orange and later suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Caines said his brother was able to turn his life around with treatment and retraining from another VA program.
He said his brother's experience motivates him to fight for homeless veterans and help them reclaim their dignity and independence.
"I know I'm supposed to be here," he said. "This is very important work."