More room, more ability to help vets

For Deanne Tate, president and chief executive of Veterans First, the selling points of the Orange County nonprofit's new digs are many.

At about 9,300 square feet, the second-floor office suite in the heart of downtown Santa Ana has upwards of three times the space of the organization's previous headquarters, which Tate described as "an open pit" where it was difficult to carry on a productive conversation with the homeless and at-risk veterans who came in for services.

The organization, which was founded in 1971, had operated in a cramped office suite on Edinger Avenue for about six years.

Now, there's room for weekly yoga classes in a workshop room, and when volunteers from Healing Hands Wellness Center come by to give free massages, there's space for that too.

Kids can hang out in the children's lounge while their parents get help looking for jobs or transitional housing. Each of Tate's full-time staff members — many of them veterans themselves — has a place to sit, while Los Angeles-based partner organizations, such as 1736 Family Crisis Center and Volunteers of America, have office space to meet with clients when their representatives are in town.

But one of the most exciting things about the new place has nothing to do with the extra breathing room, Tate said.

It's the fact that, one floor below, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Long Beach Healthcare System is set to open a community resources and referral center in a couple months, as part of a partnership with Veterans First, the county's only nonprofit working to provide a multitude of services to homeless veterans.

"It's really great to see," Tate said Wednesday, sitting in her corner office, still in a semi-unpacked state of disarray. "Everything's right here."

Together, Veterans First and Veterans Affairs will form a one-stop shop for struggling veterans, who would otherwise have to chase down services in locations spread around the county — a task that can be especially difficult without a reliable mode of transportation.

If a homeless veteran comes into Veterans First, for example, staffers there may be able to help him or her move into one of the organization's housing programs, while downstairs, the VA could help provide mental health services.

The center is among just 25 of its kind in the country — 17 were granted funding in 2010, and a group of 13, including the Orange County partnership, were funded in 2012, said Jean Willis, community resource and referral coordinator for the VA in Long Beach. The only other community resources and referral center in the vast area covered by the Long Beach network is in Las Vegas, though the VA operates several community health clinics.

"What's unique about it is that it's not necessarily a medical model — it's more of a psychosocial model," Willis said, "designed to function intentionally with community partners to be able to bring services to veterans who may fall into the cracks."

Tate said that once she can find enough reliable volunteers to staff the place, she hopes to fill one of those cracks, by keeping Veterans First open all day, seven days a week.

That way, veterans who are released from Orange County's Central Jail, just across the street, in the wee hours of the morning would be able to make Veterans First — not a bar, and not the street — their first stop.

Friday afternoon, as guys who regularly stop by Veterans First for lunch or a shower meandered around the new facility alongside local officials at an open house, case manager Joseph Fernandez said navigating the transition back to civilian life is always difficult.

The 25-year-old Irvine native — who served in Iraq as part of the Army's 4th Infantry and later in the National Guard — channels his own experiences trying to fit in with "18-year-old kids" at Orange Coast College when he's helping other vets.

"It was like, 'Why is everyone so happy?'" he said.

Although many of his clients are Vietnam-era veterans who have struggled with homelessness for years, Fernandez said he's seen increasing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans his own age who have begun battling substance abuse or mental illness.

His new office, he said, is "a lot better" and more private.

Down the hall, veterans dressed in uniforms and elected officials squeezed into the Veterans Lounge, dedicated to the memory of Marine Lance Cpl. James Hassell, a Navy Achievement medal winner who would frequently visit the old Veterans First location when he couldn't sleep. He died before he could see the new center.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana) and Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen thanked Tate for Veterans First's work in the community, and thanked the veterans for their service.

Clients snapped photos on flip phones and guests craned their necks to see a giant red ribbon snipped in the middle of the room. Tate dabbed her eyes.


Veterans First Service Center

888 West Santa Ana Blvd. Suite 200

(714) 547-0615

Online at

VA's Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (Press 1)

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