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Serving those who served

Formerly homeless veterans at Menlo Park's new VA apartments share their stories

"We are not going to forget the sacrifices you made. We're here because you deserve all of this and so much more," said Lisa Freeman, director of the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, at the grand opening of a 60-unit housing complex for homeless and at-risk veterans at the Veterans Affairs campus in Menlo Park.

Willow Housing, located at 605 Willow Road, is the result of efforts by nonprofit and government agencies and people under their employ. EAH Housing, Core Housing, the city of Menlo Park, San Mateo County, Veterans Affairs agencies in Menlo Park and Palo Alto, and other agencies all collaborated, with the backing of area U.S. congressional representatives Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda.

"We're grateful we can serve those who served," said Menlo Park Councilman Peter Ohtaki at the apartments' grand opening.

The apartments have well-crafted wood-finished interiors, with a living room for watching TV, a community room with ping pong, and a fitness room full of treadmills and other workout equipment.

There's an outdoor barbecue area in the back, and the walls are decorated with art pieces by veterans, facilitated by the Veteran Artists Program. The manager of the building, Charles King, said he is a veteran who has also experienced homelessness.

Several of the residents opened up to the Almanac to tell their stories.

Allen

Nearly every day since the groundbreaking of Willow Housing about a year ago, Allen passed the construction site on the electric cart he drove as a deliveryman for the Menlo Park VA. He would jokingly point out a room on the second floor of the new building with a balcony. "That's my room," he'd tell his companions. He never thought he'd actually get it.

But that didn't stop the 58-year-old veteran from sending monthly letters to the housing agency, asking to be considered for one of the 60 new one-room and studio apartments the complex would offer.

When he learned that not only did he get a competitive spot in the new complex, but the room he had fantasized about, he was thrilled.

Now, he has his porch lined with rocks, an homage to his earlier life as a geologist. Back then, he ran a rock carvings and jewelry manufacturing business.

During his military service, he had received a traumatic brain injury, and despite frequent migraines, he says, he built up his business into a "little empire."

Life continued to bring challenges – he lost a 16-year-old son and attempted suicide – and for the first time sought support from the VA. They put him on antidepressants and, he says, "saved my life," but everything changed one day, within days of stopping his antidepressants, when he choked his wife.

They went through a divorce and he went to prison for six years, and when he got out, he had to start over. When he came out, he went to a shelter for homeless veterans.

"I've paid my debt to society," he said. "I've come out way way ahead, looking at life as a whole."

He and his neighbor, Johnny, who lives two doors down, had a pork roast cooking in a Crock Pot for later that afternoon.

Johnny, 76, served in the U.S. Air Force in 1955, and said when he got out of service, he "started hanging with the wrong people. ... It wasn't a good path to go on."

He had been homeless, sleeping on stairs, under the freeway, in parks and on benches, he said. Then, a man from a detox center in San Leandro convinced him to enter a treatment program.

Now, he said, he regularly attends support group meetings like AA. He says he's planning to start volunteering, or maybe take classes or join programs around the Bay Area. "I think I'll be pretty busy," he said.

He also plans to spend time with family, including his great-grandchildren.

Kendra

Kendra, 43, is a Navy Airman veteran and one of the few females living in the complex.

One of the biggest changes from being homeless, she said, is the safety she feels in her apartment. She used to live in San Jose in a blighted apartment complex, where her she says her neighbor was a known sexual predator. Now that she no longer has to worry about her day-to-day safety, she is better able to focus on her therapy program to treat PTSD.

She is also saving money, since she no longer has to commute from San Jose to the VA for her treatment. Public transit fare used to cost her about $15 per day, she said, leaving little extra for food.

Chris

Chris was among the first round of veterans to move into the facility as part of the HUD-VASH program (an acronym for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's "Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing" initiative), which is a federal program that provides housing vouchers to qualifying homeless veterans under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

He was homeless for 12 years and says he lived on the streets of Santana Row in San Jose and in Oakland. He smoked crack cocaine. In 2014, he got into a shelter at Home First in San Jose, then moved to the Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City.

His new digs, he says, are "a whole hell of a lot nicer." Living in an apartment complex with other veterans makes it a sustainable place to live for him.

"We have a major commonness between us," he said. "We're different when we're around our kind." He said some of the residents he already knew from Home First or the Maple Street Shelter.

For years, he said, he wanted two things: a place to live, and to have someone in his life. Now, he's living in Willow Housing and has a fiancee, and he has been clean for more than four years. He's also receiving therapy and is able to receive service-connected disability.

"I think I'm doing pretty good," he said. "My journey's been a long, hard one, but now my journey has ended right here."

James

James, now 61, is a San Francisco native who began his service in Vietnam as soon as he was old enough, spending six years with the U.S. Navy, three of which he spent as a recruiter in San Francisco. He later worked with the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, before moving on to work at the VA, doing outreach with the substance abuse department.

However, after a divorce and a stroke, he lost his home and found himself in an emergency homeless shelter. After spending a year being homeless, he learned he'd been accepted to live in Willows Housing.

Even though he said the move was part of his "final rodeo," he doesn't show signs of slowing down. Over the last few years, he's taken sociology classes at the College of Alameda and Ohlone Community College.

He's now planning to take a filmmaking class through Stanford's continuing studies program, with the intention of making a documentary about the things he's learned as an African-American veteran.

He says each day he does two things that bring him closer to his goals. "I'm on a mission here," he said.

Michael

Michael eagerly invited guests to see his apartment during the grand opening, after offering a sincere thank you to the attendees. He said he had previously lived in a hotel with bedbugs and was "so happy" to be living in his own apartment. In his room, the walls are elaborately decorated with greenery and art, plus a soft mink hanging on the window sill, which he calls "Squishy."

"Different pieces come from different places," he said of his collection. "I'm having fun with it."

Christopher

Christopher, 62, is a Marine Corps infantry veteran. He had been working as a security guard at Facebook when he was diagnosed with a tumor on his spine. To pursue treatment, he had to quit his job, and in the process, lost his apartment. He says he feels grateful for his new home and plans to travel to Spain.

"This is not going to be the last place I see," he said.

Wendell

Wendell served with the Marine Corps for three and a half years and the Navy Corps of Engineers for another three and a half years, he said.

He grew up in rural Georgia on a country farm. After his service, he worked for years in the headstone inscription business, later traveling across the U.S. to open eight cemeteries.

He later found himself homeless in the Bay Area. The hardest thing about being homeless, he said, is the constant concern about safety, especially for one's belongings. If you were lucky, he said, you could find a nearby water spigot to use to keep clean and a good group of people to take turns watching each other's possessions and share camaraderie.

At Willows Housing, though, he says he feels safe. "Things are pretty good here," he said.

More information

Willow Housing is a new 60-unit apartment complex built on the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs campus at 605 Willow Road, Menlo Park, CA 94025. Call (605) 561-6283. Office hours: M-F, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.

● Go to tinyurl.com/va314 for information on the Willow Housing complex.

● Go to tinyurl.com/va315 for information on housing resources for veterans.

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