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Homeless vets work on historic structures and their own lives

At Heritage Square in Los Angeles, veterans who have struggled learn such skills as masonry, carpentry and even selecting Victorian color schemes.

June 12, 2011|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph Cruz, 23, right, a Marines veteran who served in Iraq, logs his work hours as Army veteran Charles Varnado, 51, moves materials from one area to another. The two are taking part in a program to restore historic buildings at Heritage Square Museum in Highland Park.
Joseph Cruz, 23, right, a Marines veteran who served in Iraq, logs his work… (Christina House, For The…)

When Trent Miller started to work on the 120-year-old barn, it was a termite's paradise.

Much of the Queen Anne structure was rotted, the roof shingles were worn down and the paint was so faded, it was impossible to figure out its former colors.

But Miller is learning as he hammers away that even something terribly beaten down can be rebuilt.

He and the four other men on his crew were recruited to work at Heritage Square Museum in a new program whose goal is to get homeless veterans' lives back on track.

The hope is that they will work not only on the buildings but on themselves as well.

Like the barn, the men have seen better days — before the alcoholism, the drug addictions, the post-war insomnia.

In 10 weeks of training at the Montecito Heights museum, they have learned new skills, including how to handle lead-based paint, how to refurbish weathered wood surfaces and how to set up scaffolding. They have tried their hand at masonry and carpentry and selecting Victorian color schemes.

The program's creators are encouraging the men to use their experience at Heritage Square to pursue careers in historic preservation.

For some of the veterans, it's mostly just about the paycheck. They make $10 an hour. But Miller, 30, saw more from the start.

"It's a good experience to take something so dilapidated and make it beautiful again," he said on a recent afternoon, as he built a wall, brick by brick. "It makes you feel proud."

The barn the men have been fixing up is known as Dr. Osborne's Carriage Barn. It was built in 1899 on the grounds of Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasadena. For three decades, it sat in disrepair, but museum officials lacked the money and the skillful hands to restore it.

Now Miller walked around the barn and showed off every detail of the veterans' ongoing work — the epoxy-patched wood siding, the new window discovered beneath a nailed-down board, the smoothly sanded walls, ready for a coat of forest green and ochre.

He is different now from five years ago, when he returned from three tours in Iraq. Back then, he could not shake the nightmares and the anxiety. He'd wake at 3 a.m. and need to drink. In the years that followed, he sold drugs, got a divorce, bounced from job to job.

In 2010, he was charged with burglary and sent to spend a year at New Directions, a round-the-clock treatment center for homeless veterans on L.A.'s Westside. He got counseling there. It was there, too, that he found out about the historic preservation program, which is run jointly by the center, Heritage Square and Preservation Arts, the restoration company that provides the training.

Charles Kibby, owner of Preservation Arts, wants to expand the project with help from grants. He hopes to open a school dedicated to such training, with a focus on veterans.

"How great would that be?" he said. "To have veterans restoring historic buildings all over the country?"

Right now, many of those in the program have much less grandiose plans. Joseph Cruz, 23, is learning to control his anger. Alvin Verdell, 52, struggled with alcoholism after his wife died, and wants to connect more with his son.

Salvador Medrano, 56, is trying to steer clear of heroin.

"I'm too old to be messing around," he said. I want to spend time with family and stay far away from people who might get me in trouble."

Medrano grew up in Oxnard, served in the Army in the mid-1970s, post-Vietnam, and then moved to L.A., where, he says, "I partied too much and drank too much."

Sitting on a bench during his lunch hour, he pointed to the Richard Shaw House, which was built 128 years ago. The two-story building shone with a fresh coat of soft blue and white paint — compliments of the veterans.

"It looks really good, huh?" Medrano said with a proud smile.

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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