Stacie Mello, 44, graduated from nursing school last Friday. About two and a half years ago, however, she was in a much different situation: drunk most of the time and living either in her car or a shed.
Sometime after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as an administrative clerk during the 1990s at the now former air base in Tustin, Mello became an alcoholic, she said. To get back on track, Mello took advantage of mental-health services through the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). For 60 days, she lived in a sober-living facility at the Villages at Cabrillo in Long Beach dedicated to housing homeless veterans and other homeless populations.
But, after she was convicted of a felony, Mello lost her job at a real-estate insurance firm and fell back into her addiction, becoming homeless for about a year, she explained.
“I lost everything,” Mello said. “I lost my home, my car and my job… I started drinking and realized that I had a problem. I called the VA, they took me in, and I’ve been sober ever since.”
Mello’s story is similar to many veterans throughout the country who have made a new life for themselves through a joint program provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the VA. The program, known as HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing), provides vouchers for rental subsidies along with case-management and clinical services.
The program has been hailed by the federal government, which in 2009 made it a top priority to support veterans who lack safe and secure housing. Last December, President Barack Obama recognized the fact that Phoenix, Ariz. became the first city in the nation to reduce its chronically homeless veteran population to zero, a significant milestone in the federal government’s goal to end homelessness among veterans by the end of 2015.
Long Beach, which also has had a long history of homeless veterans in the city, is on the same path as Phoenix and has already made great strides in just the last few years, said Bob Cerince, homeless-services officer for the Long Beach Department of Health & Human Services, in a phone interview.
By coordinating resources, Long Beach has been able to track the number of homeless veterans in the city, and, as of the last count, there were 164 homeless veterans in Long Beach in 2013, which is a nearly 46-percent drop from the 309 homeless veterans reported in 2011, he said.
By the end of next year, he said Long Beach is “poised” to meet the federal government’s goal of assisting all qualified veterans with permanent and transitional housing.
“We are well on that trajectory to find out what it means when we can say that we’ve ended chronic and veteran homelessness in Long Beach,” Cerince said. “When you get to the 2015 count, you should be able to see us getting pretty close if not reaching that zero. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have veterans who are homeless anywhere, but it means we’ll have the resources for anyone who is willing and ready to receive that assistance. We’ll have the ability to respond. It won’t be a matter of supply. We’ll have the supply to meet the need.”
This week, a screening and orientation took place on Feb. 11 and 12 for veterans to apply for the federal HUD-VASH program at the VA hospital in Long Beach.
Cerince pointed out that veterans who are dishonorably discharged are not eligible for the housing program.
Though the Long Beach program has a total of 950 vouchers, the federal government provided an extra 210 this year, she said. Stanley said there are about 150 vouchers left to provide housing assistance to homeless veterans. Over time, however, more vouchers will open up as veterans graduate from the program and are able to live on their own without assistance, she said, adding that veterans can also apply during the week as walk-ins.
“This is kind of like a mass screening, because we’re trying to get as many people housed in a short amount of time as possible,” Stanley said. “Then, if there are any openings that will happen over time then we’ll work with that, because people graduate… We have people graduating, so there’s always some sort of opening that we try to backfill.”
She said the event, which was communicated to the public through fliers provided to various community partners, such as homeless shelters and the Long Beach Multi Service Center, also provides an opportunity for veterans to work with VA case managers.
In addition to helping with housing assistance, the case manager is able to assist veterans with finding legal support for expunging criminal records, educational services and supportive services for families. The program also helps veterans with getting access to free mental-health services, medical services, Social Security benefits, reconnecting with family members and basic life skills.
“We’re doing everything from basic stuff to teaching individuals how to grocery-shop and pay bills,” Stanley said. “They haven’t done it in 15 to 20 years, and that’s where the case-management program comes in.”
The goal of ending homelessness among veterans is still a hefty order, as a new generation of veterans is now returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. According to health officials, many of the new veterans are dealing with some of the same problems as Vietnam War-era veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance-abuse issues, leaving some to become homeless.
Bill Compton, 28, a combat engineer for the U.S. Marines who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, said he attended the event in Long Beach on Tuesday in hopes of being provided permanent housing for him and his two children. He said he currently lives at his friend’s house but is hoping that will change soon.
After working in construction during his service, Compton said he hasn’t found the right career path and has been just “floating” for the last several years in community college in Arizona, adding that he no longer wants to work in the same field as his military service, mostly because of injuries he acquired on the job.
He pointed out that many younger veterans who have volunteered to enlist in the military with hopes of securing a future and tuition benefits may return home without much experience, especially if they are applying for a job that doesn’t correspond to their military service.
“Well, it’s been pretty difficult,” Compton said. “When you’re getting out, they make it seem that, just because you are a veteran and just because you served, that every person is just going to want to hire you based on the ethics you learned, but that’s completely false,” he said. “It’s been really helpful just to be able to support yourself while you go to school and try to find a direction, but, even then, finding that direction is not always easy as most any student would know. It’s hard to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life.”
As for Mello, she said her long-term goal, now that she has had her felony expunged, is to someday work for the VA hospital, adding that she plans to soon work as a volunteer in emergency rooms.
“I’m ready to go back to work,” said the Stanton resident. “This program works, and it’s unfortunate that some people might take advantage of it, but my goal is to get on and get off, and I’m almost there.”