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In The Spotlight

Veterans Village of San Diego

Member Project AHP Award

Mission Federal Credit Union

Early Transitional Housing and Services (88 beds) $896,000
Rabobank

Permanent Transitional Housing and Services for Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans (24 beds)

$600,000
Rabobank Housing and Services for Women Veterans in Need (20 beds) $500,000

 

"We like to say this is a place to let go of who you are not."
Shellie Bowman, Veterans Treatment Center Program Director

According to estimates from the Veterans Administration, about 75,000 military veterans are homeless in America on any given night. These men and, increasingly, women, tend not to fare well in programs designed for a general homeless population. Veterans Village of San Diego, founded in 1981 by a group of Vietnam Veterans, is a nationally recognized nonprofit organization offering an innovative and comprehensive continuum of care tailored specifically to the needs of our military veterans, including those who have recently returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan.

Based on the military principle of "Leave No One Behind," VVSD is a place where veterans of all ranks and all branches have an opportunity to recover from addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder; address medical, legal, and family issues; receive employment training and job placement assistance that matches military specialties with civilian careers; and prepare to successfully reintegrate into the community. It has a notably high rate of success: 55% of participants who begin VVSD's alcohol and drug treatment programs complete them, compared to a national average of just 38% of treatment program participants.

"When they walk through these doors, they are broken."
Carina Bondoc, Lead Case Manager

Everything about VVSD is deliberately designed to restore a veteran's lost sense of value and purpose, to help them build a core and get their balance. Both the campus-like physical environment and the daily routine have a military flavor, in keeping with the fact that one experience everyone here has in common is boot camp. Facilities are modest and somewhat utilitarian: new residents are assigned to 16-bed dormitories in the style of a military squad bay. According to Phil Landis, President and CEO, every aspect of the property, as well as every rule, has a purpose. "VVSD is designed to send a message: We care. You matter. You deserve this."

For men like Chaz Hadden and David Lightfoot, warriors of different generations, veterans of different branches and wars, successfully re-building their lives together at VVSD after slicing through the safety net of civilian life, that message has been received. "We're referred to as sir, mister, ma'am," says Lightfoot, a 44-year-old veteran of both the Navy and the Army. "We're given a lot of respect and dignity. Some of us are older, some younger, but there is so much camaraderie here."

"Our job is to blow on the spark that is inside each of them."
Phil Landis, President and CEO 

Lightfoot celebrated his 19th birthday out at sea in the Indian Ocean, and had a wonderful time in the Navy. But he also saw combat in the Gulf War, has a history with alcohol and methamphetamine, and had once been arrested for possession. Even with that criminal charge dismissed from his record, he could not get the security clearance he needed to do satellite systems work for the Army when they recruited him back from post-Navy civilian life.

"After all the years I spent in the military, I had a lot of veteran pride. In my defiant days, this was the last place I would go," Lightfoot confides. As with so many veterans, healing for Lightfoot would mean letting go of more than alcohol and drugs, things that had helped him bury his combat experiences. The counselors and the classes helped him understand where his base trauma lived. "I hadn't been able to express it, or know why I'd been acting certain ways, why I'd been so defiant, why I make or don't make many decisions in my life."

"They do the hard work. We just provide the tools."
Carina Bondoc, Lead Case Manager

This year, Lightfoot will be celebrating his birthday on the first day of school; in a year and a half, he'll have finished up his undergraduate degree in engineering. With the help of VVSD, Lightfoot's legal issues have been cleared up, all fees have been paid, restitutions made, and his driver's license reinstated. But it's the guidance of other veterans at VVSD that have helped him the most. "Coming here in a sober environment, hearing other veterans combat stories brought that back up," Lightfoot recalls. "And I had to face my trauma head on." Now he's looking forward to telling his wife that their dreams are achievable.

"We were all trained right and wrong in the service," says Hadden, a Vietnam combat veteran who came to VVSD straight from a prison stint. "We're being re-disciplined here. This is needed for this country." Since coming to VVSD, Hadden has quit drinking, smoking, and doing drugs. He's reconnected with the Veterans Administration and is receiving his benefits and getting his health taken care of. "I've got my faculties back," he laughs. "And my kids are coming back into my life." After two years at VVSD, he's ready to graduate and start a new life in an off-campus apartment with a fellow graduate.

"It's like a moral obligation. This is where I'm supposed to be."
Carina Bondoc, Lead Case Manager

Lead Case Manager Carina Bondoc comes from a huge military family. Her parents wanted her to stay home and go to school, but she wanted to see the world first and was on active duty at 17, in the summer of 2001. "The whole world changed before I even graduated boot camp," Carina recalls. In four years, she did two tours as a Navy gunner's mate, in OIF and OEF. When she got home and saw the impact of wartime service on fellow veterans, it sparked something in her to want to help out. And helping out has an added benefit for this veteran. "That sense of camaraderie," she says, "I never thought I would find it again out in the civilian world, but I find it here every day."

VVSD now provides services to more than 2,000 veterans annually. "There's a picture of the property when it started, a bunch of shabby pink bungalows, and every time it would rain they would flood," Bondoc relates. "But people got sober here. People were able to build their lives here." In 2004, VVSD received an AHP grant of $896,000 through Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco member Mission Federal Credit Union to produce 88 transitional beds; in 2010, VVSD received a $600,000 AHP grant to add 24 transitional beds for younger homeless or at-risk veterans of OIF and OEF through Bank member Rabobank.

"Transitional housing is the means, not the end. It's what allows us time to change behaviors."
Phil Landis, President and CEO

Next up in the evolution and expansion of VVSD are housing and services specifically designed to serve low-income female veterans, a growing population facing unique challenges — like sexual trauma and women's healthcare needs — that can be difficult to discuss in a co-ed facility. According to Bondoc, space just for women is essential. "The men here are really respectful of the women," she says, "But being able to get to those issues in private, and still be part of the VVSD community, will be just so helpful." The new women's facility is currently in development, with support from a $500,000 AHP grant through Bank member Rabobank.

VVSD continues to leverage AHP funds with other sources to help meet the needs of just some of the 1 million new vets everyone sees coming, according to Kent Trimble, who consults with VVSD on expansion projects. "Everyone falls in line if we go in with a commitment from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. They know it is real."

"I'd have been gone in isolation until I died, probably in some ditch."
David Lightfoot, Veteran

People can see the change in Lightfoot. "Somebody said, it's almost like light is coming through you," he says. "Not that 5,000-foot stare that I had when I was in trouble." And recently, David Lightfoot and Chaz Hadden represented the dead of the Vietnam and Iraq wars, respectively, at a Memorial Day observation. Standing soberly alongside majors and generals, being thanked for their service, they had tears in their eyes, and joy too, Hadden recalls. "It was awesome."