Homeless male veterans are often plagued by a sense of hopelessness and a feeling that the country they defended has now abandoned them. One organization that aims to change that scenario is the U.S. Veterans Initiative (U.S. Vets), which currently manages 11 veterans-assistance centers throughout the United States.
The U.S. Vets site in Long Beach is located in Villages at Cabrillo, close to the Port of Long Beach, and the organization offers several programs to the men who once served in the nation’s military. One of those programs is called Veterans in Progress (VIP).
“The goal of this program is to get homeless veterans off the streets,” said program manager Paul Velez-Salazar. “They can live here for up to two years, but we encourage them to get a job so they can eventually live on their own,” he said.
He explained that after they enroll in VIP, the veterans go through four different phases. In Phase One they have to complete 40 hours of community service, and they have to meet with a career counselor who helps them prepare a resume and practice interview skills.
Phase Two involves attending job fairs and applying for jobs.
“Phase Three is when they get a job, and Phase Four is when they start getting paychecks,” Velez-Salazar said.
He noted that U.S. Vets staff coach the veterans through all four phases and, on average, the men in VIP live at U.S. Vets housing for a year. He explained that VIP is designed for veterans who just need help getting back on their feet but who do not have significant psychological or physiological obstacles. “But if they come here with those type[s] of issues we will get them into a program that can help them,” he added.
One of those “extra-help” programs is the Veterans Village Recovery Center (VVRC), which is designed to help veterans overcome dependency or addiction to drugs or alcohol. VVRC offers a therapy clinic managed by the U.S. Veterans Administration (VA) at the U.S. Vets Long Beach site.
The VIP and VVRC programs combined house 104 veterans at the U.S. Vets Long Beach site.
“We also have an outreach program,” Velez-Salazar said. “In that program we send our employees out to the VA Hospital, schools, parks, under bridges and other locations to find veterans who are homeless and invite them to come to us. If we can’t help them here, we will find them a place to stay and connect them with an agency that can provide the type of program they need.”
Velez-Salazar himself is a veteran. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army for a total of 12 years and was discharged from the Army in September 2008. He served in two combat deployments, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. “The majority of staff at U.S. Vets are themselves veterans,” he said. “It’s vets helping vets.”
Adam Renteria is a good example of that. He served five years in the U.S. Army as an infantry soldier and had a tour of combat duty in Iraq during the invasion. He was discharged in 2004. Now Renteria works as a case manager in the Veterans Re-entry Project (VRP) at the Long Beach U.S. Vets site.
He explained that VRP is a residential treatment program for recently discharged veterans. “It gives the veterans a place of residence and three meals a day while they do one of three things: seek out individual therapy and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), or other physical injuries; enroll in community college courses; or work with our workforce development team to seek part-time or full-time employment depending on their goals,” he said.
He explained that the program is available to all veterans but focuses primarily on those who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars.
“We have 20 beds available for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at the U.S. Vets Long Beach site,” Renteria explained, adding that after a veteran has entered VRP, he interviews him to determine what program or programs can best meet his needs.
“TBI and all other physical injuries are treated at the Long Beach VA Hospital,” Renteria said. “That is also where veterans receive occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy.” He added that VRP participants can live for free in Villages at Cabrillo and go for regular treatments at the VA hospital.
Renteria said that VRP is successful and most of the men who go through the program are better off because of it. He explained that usually, after a veteran enters the program, he is able to get disability income, G.I. Bill education benefits, or income from employment. “That means they are able to save money,” he explained. “They don’t have any expenses here except for a small fee, which is usually less than 20 percent of their income.” He added that after several months of saving money, the veterans are able to afford first and last months’ rent and the required deposit typically required for rental residences. “Once they get back on their feet, a lot of them move out into the community, and some are able to move into HUD housing and continue receiving services,” he said.
Renteria noted that veterans in VRP normally stay in free U.S. Vets housing for about two years, but if a man has not recovered sufficiently during that time, he is allowed to stay longer.
“It’s important to take care of our veterans because they have given so much to our country, they have been away from family and have given their all,” Velez-Salazar said. “It’s time for us to give back to them.”
Velez-Salazar stressed that U.S. Vets staff hope that more veterans will avail themselves of the assistance the organization offers. “We want homeless veterans to know they have a place here,” he said. “We want them to know we can help them or find an agency that can help them live a much better life.”
In Long Beach, US Veterans Initiative is located at 2001 River Ave., and it provides assistance to male and female veterans. For more information, go to usvetsinc.org or call (562) 388-7800.
This article is part of a Signal Tribune series detailing some of the local US Veterans Initiative Programs.