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Veterans find an ally in fight against homelessness

Serene Haven offers former members of the armed forces a place to live with rent subsidized by U.S. vouchers. They also get counseling and help with substance abuse and job placement.

March 10, 2012|By Esmeralda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times
  • Serene Haven has helped Donald Gentry, 57, who hugs his daughter Donasia, 9, on the front lawn of their apartment complex. Gentry, a former Marine, was homeless for many years.
Serene Haven has helped Donald Gentry, 57, who hugs his daughter Donasia,… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

The walls are bare and the bedroom is still missing a television, but Thomas Simmons couldn't be prouder of his new home.

"It's all mine," the 35-year-old says, looking around. "My couch, my bed, my gas stove. It's finally mine."

For nearly a decade, the veteran of Afghanistan lived in homeless shelters and in his car, wandering from Georgia to Nevada to California, his clothes crammed in his trunk and his life in disarray.

He was among the estimated 7,400 veterans who are homeless in Los Angeles County — battling post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, alcoholism and mental issues.

Recently, he became one of a fortunate few to get permanent housing with help from Serene Haven, a new nonprofit group offering veterans a fresh start.

The Seal Beach-based organization was started two years ago by Matt Heslin, a real estate developer, and his friend, a former gang member who owned a personal security company.

Heslin invested $3 million of his money to start the nonprofit group. He bought and renovated three apartment buildings in Hyde Park and the West Adams district. Two are already filled with about a dozen veterans. The third location, with 15 apartments, will be available in coming weeks.

Veterans' rents are subsidized by vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Department and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program. A case manager helps with counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and job placement.

Nationwide, veterans make up nearly a fifth of the homeless population, although only 8% of Americans have served in the military, U.S. statistics show. Officials worry that the number of homeless veterans will grow as more return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to a bleak economy.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has pledged to eliminate homelessness among veterans by 2015. But finding permanent housing for veterans is a constant challenge, particularly in Los Angeles, where about 25% of the nation's homeless veterans live, in part because of the sunny weather.

"We're always trying to enlarge our housing stock," said Michelle Wildy, chief of community care for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. "We are always trying to talk to landlords and educate the community so they can be willing to rent to veterans. We want them to know: They don't just get a veteran, they get a whole support system."

Heslin hopes to expand Serene Haven with grants and donations.

"My contribution is just the start," he said. "I'm hoping people will take notice and help these guys who really have nowhere to go."

So far, the units have filled up fast — and with a variety of veterans. There's a mother of two who served during the Iraq war and was sleeping with her children in a shelter; a 60-year-old man who had been homeless intermittently since the Vietnam War; and a young man in his 20s who returned from Iraq and got lost in drugs.

Simmons said he tried living with his family when he returned from the Army in 2003, but after a fallout, he ended up in a shelter. For seven years, he wandered, drinking and struggling with schizophrenia, the memories of exploding land mines ringing in his head. Holding down a job was impossible most days.

"I was broke," Simmons said. "I was stressed, I was lonely and nothing in my life was stable,"

He moved into his Spanish-style apartment seven months ago after learning of Serene Haven through a shelter in Bell. With a part-time job, he filled every room with new furniture: a brown velvet sectional in the living room, a dark wood bedroom set for his room and another for his guest room.

"Now all I need to do is find me a nice girl to sit next to me on this nice couch," he said, laughing.

A few miles away at Serene Haven's second complex, Desert Storm veteran Anthony Allen has a new place too — a one-bedroom apartment with hardwood floors and granite countertops. But his favorite part of the home is the front door.

"It has a lock on it so I know every day when I come home and I close it, I'll be safe," said the 40-year-old, who has struggled with mental health issues and spent years bouncing from shelters to jail to people's couches.

"Now I'm relaxed and I see real opportunity."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report.

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