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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : THE HOME FRONT : VA Program Becomes a Strong Ally for Vets Fighting to Get Off the Streets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s no way to understand how far Bob Hunter has come without knowing how far he fell. From a successful writer in St. Louis to a denizen on the streets of Los Angeles, the decline was gradual, a bottle his companion all the way down.

For 15 years, Hunter has lived in jail, shelters or on the street. The last five years were spent on Skid Row; five years of drinking and doping, of stealing to survive and, he said, watching other men have their throats slit because they’d stolen someone else’s crack.

“It was commonplace to see someone (killed) right next to you. And you’d just walk over the body and smoke,” Hunter recalls. “They would just toss bodies in an alley.”

Early last year, Hunter showed up at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in West Los Angeles. “I had not come here to get sober. I just came for a rest from the streets,” he says.

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But soon, Hunter found himself with a group of people who knew what he had forgotten: that he could get off the streets if he really wanted to. Within a few months, they not only had him clean and sober, but immersed in a program for homeless veterans that is widely recognized as among the most comprehensive in the nation.

Today, at age 60, Hunter is working again, having just started a job managing a Long Beach store run by the Disabled American Veterans group.

So call Hunter one of the lucky ones.

He sure does.

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“I feel a miracle has occurred to me,” he says.

“I wish I could tell you there are a lot more like that,” adds Bill Daniels, director of the medical center’s homeless program. “We’re here if someone really, truly wants to come off the streets. But it’s not an easy road back.”

On a 500-acre site nestled between Brentwood and Westwood, in some of the most valuable real estate in the country, lies the VA’s West Los Angeles facility--home to the nation’s largest veterans’ hospital and one of the country’s most comprehensive programs for homeless veterans.

Mirroring national statistics on the homeless, local officials estimate that 40 to 50% of the men without shelter in Los Angeles County, approximately 15,000 to 23,000 men, are veterans. That’s the largest population of homeless veterans in the country. About half of them are believed to have been in the military during the Vietnam War.

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To help meet the demand for services, the VA’s West Los Angeles facility opened its Comprehensive Homeless Center in 1987 to provide medical treatment, job training, a stable living environment and a support network for veterans who are without permanent shelter.

“The people we have seen have had all of these areas break down on them,” says Daniels, the program coordinator.

People like Darryl B.

At 42, the Vietnam veteran has tested positive for the AIDS virus, a consequence of drug addiction. A musician and singer by trade, he admits his job history has always been rocky--an explanation, not an excuse, for his years of drug use and brushes with the law.

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Things were pretty bad for Darryl in July, 1992, when he entered a long-term housing program co-sponsored by the VA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At that point, he had been living on the streets for three months. The so-called VASH program--short for VA Supported Housing--gave Darryl both the stable environment and the responsibilities he needed to prove he could support himself, as well as his 15-year-old son, who now lives with Darryl after years of separation.

“It provided me with an opportunity to reunite with my son,” Darryl says. “Even beyond that, it gave me an opportunity to stay off the streets. And it’s difficult to stay clean when the things I know how to do best to make money mostly are illegal.”

Initially, says the VA’s Daniels, the homeless veterans program was limited to visits at local nonprofit agencies where caseworkers would refer street-weary veterans to the VA. But over time, Daniels says, it became obvious that that approach was not reaching enough homeless veterans--many of whom would miss the periodic visits to agencies by VA caseworkers.

To resolve that problem, they opened the Comprehensive Homeless Center.

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“The hospital is so big, we just wanted a place to deal with homelessness,” says Daniels.

The center for the homeless program is Building 212, one of a cluster of VA buildings that sit north of Wilshire Boulevard--across from the 1,400-bed VA hospital.

Inside the three-story homeless center, the VA operates or oversees various programs.

* The Drop-In Center provides counseling, referral and other medical and psychiatric services daily to about two dozen walk-in homeless vets. Social workers see as many as 30 homeless veterans a day there, some of whom just want bus tokens or a hot meal. But for those who want more, the social workers are on hand to guide veterans to the appropriate agency or service.

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* HAVEN (Helping Assist Veterans With Emergency Needs) is a 40-bed emergency housing and crisis center operated by the Salvation Army.

* The VASH program, a long-term research project, provides intensive care and counseling for veterans with an eye toward re-establishing them in independent living environments. The program begins with a three-month evaluation and aims to help veterans obtain VA-supported subsidized housing, where subsidies and monitoring by the VA continues for at least five years.

In addition to the services offered at the homeless center’s headquarters, the West Los Angeles VA complex operates other programs. Across from Building 212, for example, is the homeless domiciliary, a 100-bed care program for Southern California veterans who require a long-term medical recovery.

The VA also administers an in-house benefits program, where Social Security payments and other services are explained and monitored, as well as an extensive outreach program where veterans are contacted through various community agencies. The agencies include Ocean Park Community Center, St. Joseph’s Center, House of Yaweh, His House, CLARE Drop-In Center, Step-Up on Second, Valley Homeless Shelter and the United Methodist Church.

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And the VA coordinates other community programs for homeless veterans. The 300-room Westside Residence Hall also provide career counseling, job training and other services for veterans who are making the transition from the medical center to life on their own.

The VA also provides a van service to shuttle homeless veterans to the medical center from a large shelter in Bell. For the past four years, it has sponsored a homeless veterans fair providing everything from food, blankets and clothing to medical services and legal counseling. This year’s two-day fair drew an estimated 500 homeless veterans to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.

“This is sort of like a MASH unit without triage,” one organizer of the event quipped as scores of doctors, nurses, career counselors and others assisted veterans.

“When someone actually becomes homeless, they have very often lost their support system . . . and they become involved in the homeless subculture. And it’s very difficult to get out of that,” Dr. Carol Redford said as she took a brief break from administering to veterans.

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The event underscored two competing realities of the local homeless veterans program. One, the VA offers an array of services. Two, the local problem of homeless veterans is staggering.

“Homelessness is just such a pervasive problem,” the VA’s Daniels says, sitting in his third-floor office at the homeless center’s headquarters. “In the past, some people have said the VA doesn’t do enough, but there is always more to do.”

Still, those with knowledge of other veterans hospitals nationwide have high praise for the homeless projects at the VA in West Los Angeles.

“It has one of the strongest homeless programs, if not the strongest, in terms of the size of the program, the diversity, the richness of services it provides and its linkage with community providers,” says Bob Rosenheck, director of the Veteran Administration’s Northeast Program Evaluation Center in West Haven, Conn.

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The next component of the VA’s homeless program will be a 152-bed facility operated by New Directions Inc., a private nonprofit group that provides housing, food, job training and other services for veterans who suffer from substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic unemployment. The New Directions program, launched by the VA in 1977 but stripped of federal funding during the Reagan and Bush administrations, is now run by former veterans, including some who have been helped by New Directions.

“We are building this (facility) for people who want to go through the program, not for those who just want to crash for the night,” says Tom Pepe of New Directions. “We are building this for people who want to do something constructive with their lives.”

Under a plan now being finalized, New Directions will lease a VA building just west of the homeless center’s headquarters and convert it into a long-term housing and service center for veterans. The $5 million project will be privately financed with donations to New Directions and will mark the first time such a program has been housed on VA property.

“The significance of this is that for the first time, you will be able to treat the whole problem on-site. You will be able to deal with drug abuse and retraining and the rest in-house,” says John Keaveney, a co-founder of New Directions. “Right now you can just get shuttled around.”

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That sort of centralization is crucial to helping veterans who are reluctant to seek services for a variety of reasons, according to Keaveney and others.

Sometimes, they say, veterans shun help because they have had bad experiences with other veterans facilities. Other times, it is because they don’t want to confront their problems or, perhaps, don’t understand them.

Manuel Olivas, 47, spent a year on the streets before arriving at the VA’s homeless center last November. His year without shelter was the end of a journey that began in a January, 1967, firefight north of Da Nang.

Ambushed and severely wounded in the leg, Olivas figured he would die in the mud during that battle. “I couldn’t move. I thought my life was over,” he recalls.

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In a way, he knows now, it was.

His “million-dollar wound” got him out of Vietnam, but it--and the subsequent word that his entire unit was wiped out in a battle--put Olivas on a path of self-destruction.

Heroin and cocaine addiction came quickly after he left the service. And even though Olivas cleaned himself up during years of steady employment, he never quite shed his demons.

“I was off (drugs) seven years and had a good job,” he remembers. “I never thought that I would be on drugs again. I never thought I’d end up homeless. That was the biggest fear of my life. I didn’t want to wind up on Skid Row.”

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“I didn’t,” Olivas says, “but I wound up on Venice Beach.”

By the time he arrived at the VA program, Olivas had survived a shooting, a stabbing that left him blind in one eye and other drug-related horrors. An infant son died from health problems caused by the drug addiction of Olivas and his girlfriend.

Still, he plodded along, numb to his emotions and unable to see a future.

“When he came in, he was an obvious PTSD” case, says VA caseworker Ric Stafford, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder--a common diagnosis in combat veterans.

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The emotional shutdown. The numbing out. “It’s a normal reaction to abnormally traumatic experiences,” says Stafford, himself a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Today, after receiving drug treatment and counseling for stress disorder at the homeless center, Olivas is again living clean and sober, looking for steady work. And he believes he is on the way toward confronting and eventually controlling the pain of his past.

One indication, he says, is that he is no longer sure he wants his ashes scattered atop the hills of Vietnam--a gesture he once considered his only way to reach closure with the war.

And, Olivas says, he knows he is changing because he no longer is lured to the Santa Monica and Venice parking lots where he and other addicts and alcoholics would while away their lives.

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“I see them now and I don’t even stop,” Olivas says. “I got no business out there. There are too many things I want to do.”


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