‘This is their community’: Heroes Landing in Santa Ana gives veterans a home base
At Santa Ana’s Heroes Landing, Orange County’s largest permanent supportive housing community exclusively for veterans, a strong community is forming.
The 75 apartment homes, formerly called Santa Ana’s Veteran’s Village, opened in July 2020 with the goal of creating “a sanctuary of stability and a hub of hope” in collaboration with the Jamboree Housing Corp., the city of Santa Ana and other veteran-focused organizations.
“It is a sanctuary for homeless veterans. It is a place where every aspect of the design had the veteran in mind,” said Richard Owens, senior program manager for Jamboree Housing Corp. and a veteran himself.
Owens served a total of 17 years and was deployed four times, doing tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I did eight years of active duty in the Marine Corps, and I did nine years in the Army Reserve.”
Like many Orange County veterans, Owens knows firsthand the struggles that can plague a solider transitioning back into civilian life.
“Even with the support in place, it still took me 11 years, to connect the dots,” said Owens. “Because I still struggle. Even having support in place, I still struggled a lot with transition.”
Owens stayed with family after active duty and was able to find employment as a teacher, but a study put out in 2016 by USC’s School of Social Work called “The State of the American Veteran” inspired him to change course.
“When I saw that, I felt called to work with homeless veterans,” Owens said. “I was like, ‘I am veteran I have had my own issues,’ and this was when I was starting connect my dots and see my dots … I wanted to give back to the community, I wanted to help my fellow brothers and sisters to get back on their feet.”
He left teaching and started on a path that led him to Heroes Landing Community Collaborative, making it possible for O.C. veterans to find permanent homes.
Founded in 1990, Jamboree Housing Corp. is a nonprofit that started with a $1-million federal grant awarded to aid in the development of a first-time homebuyers’ program in Irvine. The goal was to create more housing opportunities for low-income families and seniors. Heroes Landing is Jamboree’s first property exclusively for veterans.
Besides providing permanent housing, Heroes Landing also offers onsite supportive services.
“Working and speaking to veteran service providers, we saw that it’s not one thing that veterans need, there are multiple issues and barriers that individuals face when they are coming out of homelessness and they become housed,” said Owens. “We wanted to create a services collaborative that addressed multiple issues. In order to do that we have five services provided on site.”
VA Long Beach Healthcare System, Goodwill of Orange County’s Tierney Center for Veterans Services, Veterans Legal Institute, Strength in Support and Step Up all have offices open and available to residents at Heroes Landing.
“Every unit at Heroes Landing is a part of the Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing, or VASH,” said Owens. “That means that every veteran here has a social worker assigned to them, and they work through a series of different goals.”
Strength in Support provides individual and group counseling outside of the Veterans Administration, which Owens notes is important because of the aversion some vets have to working with the VA.
“Some Veterans have a stigma towards the VA, either they don’t trust the VA or they are just not comfortable sharing with the VA,” said Owens. “Strength in Support is there and they are able to meet those behavioral mental health needs that veterans have without having to go to the VA … Their feelings towards the VA wouldn’t be a barrier to them getting the help they need.”
The Tierney Center for Veterans Services operated by Goodwill Orange County helps with education and employment benefits.
“They will help vets get resumes prepared, help with job searches, help with getting connected to VA education benefits and enrolling in school,” said Owens.
The Veterans Legal Institute provides pro-bono legal services for veterans, helping with pending legal issues the unhoused can face, like evictions or tickets issued to those living on the streets.
“The biggest thing, especially for our veterans, is discharge upgrades,” Owens said. “The Veterans Legal Institute will work with veterans to get their discharge upgraded to another level, especially if they had something other than honorable discharge.”
Step Up assists with community events, making sure residents feel at home and a part of the community.
“Step Up helps with daily living skills, and they put on different classes … cooking classes, nutrition classes, they help coordinate yoga, and all these things that help the quality of life and make the day to day better,” Owens said.
When COVID-19 threatened their community last year, Owens said the VA Long Beach Healthcare System stepped in.
“We had nurses come on site and they hosted COVID-19 testing and COVID-19 vaccine clinics,” said Owens. “They are not just bringing the social workers, but they get multiple elements of the Veterans Affairs Hospital here at Heroes Landing. Instead of the veterans having to go to the hospital, they are bringing it to them.”
The collaborative atmosphere was particularly helpful when the pandemic hit, Owens said. “We have had less than 10 active COVID cases onsite.”
With each case, the individual quarantined and was delivered food and water and all the support they needed to get better.
“We would do daily checks by phone or by knocking on their door, to interact with them, to keep them engaged, to let them know we are here and we care about them,” said Owens.
The community garden club also helped keep morale strong.
“One of our biggest successes over the last year has been our garden club, and it really helped during COVID because it provided an opportunity for people to get outside, to safely socially engage with their neighbors,” said Owens. “It gave people a purpose.”
Residents signed up for jobs like watering, weeding and pruning. Heroes Landing recently hosted a barbecue in which residents got to dine on some of the veggies they have grown.
“All the side, all the vegetables were locally grown things from our garden and the garden club was really excited to present that to the community.”
Owens said the sense of community created by the residents and services is what makes Heroes Landing successful.
“Again it goes back to the fact that we all collaborate, we all work together to get the messaging out on the importance of safety and taking care of community,” said Owens. “And I think that is the key thing there. Veterans really see that this is their community, it as a place that they can call home and they take a lot of pride in that.”
The services onsite at Heroes Landing are not just open to residents but any Orange County Veterans. More information about their housing opportunities and services can be found at the Heroes Landing webpage. Jamboree Housing Corp. is currently developing a second permanent supportive housing property in Santa Ana, North Harbor Village, for formerly homeless veterans and those with special needs.
Owens said Heroes Landing can be the first step to major change.
“This is one part of ending veteran homelessness in Orange County,” said Owens. “Our hope is that other providers and developers will see how successful this is and create a new model on how we are providing services, not just to our homeless veterans but to all of our homeless population in general.”
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