By Shirley Hawkins
INGLEWOOD — As the country celebrates Independence Day, thousands of military veterans who fought for their country are living under freeways, seeking refuge in shelters or simply surviving on the streets.
Los Angeles County is currently grappling with a homeless crisis and statistics indicate that veterans in the county experience homelessness at a higher rate than the civilian population. Los Angeles County leads the way with the largest population of homeless veterans in the country.
In January, volunteers from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority counted 3,874 veterans living in tents, cars or on the street.Approximately 2,800 veterans received housing last year in Los Angeles, but vets sleeping on the streets or in temporary shelters still increased by 12%.
Due to the extreme housing shortages and high rents in L.A. County, many veterans find themselves losing their residences. Statistics indicate that the same number of vets — 12% — fall into homelessness, many for the first time. The population of former military personnel living on the streets dropped by just 12 individuals between 2018 and 2019.
But the nonprofit U. S. VETS in Inglewood, located at 733 Hindry Ave., is on a mission to assist veterans with free services and to provide housing for as many veterans as possible.
U. S. VETS Inglewood Executive Director Akilah Templeton said she is dedicated to helping vets transition off the streets and move into permanent housing.
“It’s been quite a journey, but every day you have the opportunity to serve,” she said, adding, “Currently, we have 600 vets at the site and 225 of those are in transitional housing.”
U.S Vets opened its doors in 1993 with only five clients. Since then, it has grown to operate more than 600 beds and supplies both transitional and permanent housing. To date, the organization has served more than 10,000 veterans.Funds to run the facility are derived from local and federal funding, including funds from the Veterans Administration, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, several banks as well as individual and corporate donors.
Housed in an eight-story, white brick building, the nonprofit organization provides drug and alcohol counseling and free housing as well as comprehensive supportive services that include individual case management, employment assistance, job placement, psychological counseling and social activities. A workforce program helps more than 100 veterans return to employment each year.
Services include Veterans in Progress, which prepares veterans to obtain and maintain employment while providing comprehensive support including housing, counseling and basic needs.
The Fathers Program helps non-custodial fathers to become more emotionally and financially involved in their children’s lives and helps them find employment along with comprehensive support.
The High Barriers Program works with veterans who have additional obstacles to overcome in seeking employment including advanced age, a history of felonies and incarceration or long periods of unemployment.
The Substance Abuse Services Coordination Agency (SASCA) works in conjunction with a community parolee program to provide case management, substance abuse education and re-entry programs for veterans.
The Long-Term Supportive Housing program provides affordable, sober, service-enriched rental housing for vets with employment or other income such as disability payments.
Workforce Development offers career counseling, training, interviewing skills, job placement services and employment support.
Sixty-four year old Bobby Lee Marshall, a resident at U.S. VETS, said that the organization has been a godsend.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, Marshall joined the U.S. Army. While traveling with his unit to Beirut, Lebanon, he got hurt and fell off a five-ton trunk.
“When I went home, my mother died and I started drinking,” he recalls. “I turned to alcohol and drugs. I came to California and lived on Skid Row. I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and I slept in boxes on the street.
“A friend told me about U.S. VETS. He had been at his lowest ebb, but he had gone from zero to hero. He came back to see me on Skid Row and he looked and smelled good. He was working at the Veteran’s Administration. He said, ‘Hey, I’m at this place called U.S. VETS and you should come and check it out,’” Marshall said.
“I decided to try it too. When I got here, so many powerful things began to take place. I started working on myself, working to receive my benefits and started using the career center here. I started doing gardening on the grounds and that lifted my spirits.
“Now I’m back in touch with my family. It had been eight years since I had seen my family because I was pitying myself feeling ashamed about myself.”
Pausing, he said, “When vets go through these conflicts of war, it does something to the vet. A lot of times they come back home and the family cannot deal with them and they do not understand what happened to the vet.”
Marshall said the help he has received at U.S. VETS has been life transforming.
“It’s like a power touch, there’s something magical about U. S. Vets,” he said. “A vet can come here with zero and he goes to hero. You begin to feel good about yourself because they have powerful case management here.”
Templeton said that any vet can visit and learn about their services.
“A veteran can simply walk into our facility — no appointment is needed,” Templeton said. “We even provide them with a lunch.
“Then they meet with our outreach counselors for a brief screening and assessment. Once we find out what their needs are, they are placed in an individual treatment program, so they receive supplemental services from day one. If they need it, we can offer them an emergency shelter bed which allows us to house vets that may not have an honorable discharge, so we cover all the bases.”
Templeton said that U.S. VETS Inglewood is constantly reaching out to the community. Outreach workers take to the streets daily to search for veterans and to inform them about the free programs that are available.
“Many veterans are not aware that they qualify for an array of free services,” Templeton said. “I am shocked that so many veterans don’t know that we can offer them help. Every time I come face to face with a family member, a veteran or even an agency in the community, so many times they have no idea that these services at U.S. VETS exist.”
Templeton said that veterans enrolled in their programs range from young to old.
“We’re seeing a lot of younger guys coming into the program, but our senior population is rising,” she said. “Many have physical or mental health problems. We have a team of people working with them and we’re trying to meet the needs of that population.”
Templeton said the Inglewood community has really embraced U.S. VETS.
“Inglewood’s Mayor [James] Butts has been very supportive and very responsive to our needs. And the Inglewood Police Department has a homeless task force where they refer veterans to us who are living on the streets. They’re on the phone with us all the time and they are always reaching out.”
Pausing, Templeton added, “The Fourth of July is when we can all collectively enjoy our freedom. We have to remember why we are free and that is because of the sacrifices made by our service men and women and our veterans.”
U.S. VETS can be contacted by calling (310) 744-6533.
This article originally appeared in the Wave Newspapers.