Volunteerism is at the heart of the United States Veterans Initiative. Its very inception is the result of a group of prominent private citizens, organized by the Honorable Judge Harry Pregerson of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, to end the cycle of homelessness in Los Angeles County. The Genesis Committee volunteered its time and talent to create a long-term solution to the entire continuum of needs.
By the early 90’s, the number of homeless Veterans had increased to 20,000. During a particularly harsh winter in 1992, several of these homeless persons froze to death. The committee acted; the Los Angeles Veterans Initiative was created with a specific mission – “the successful reintegration of the greatest number of homeless veterans to their highest level of independence as rapidly as possible.”
The Genesis Committee identified housing as the key to any end-to-end strategy. If the total homeless continuum of care was addressed – from the streets to rehabilitation – Los Angeles needed more than the allocated 100 beds for Veterans. The Northrop University Residence Hall was targeted as the site for housing and rehabilitation. In March of 1993, the Initiative leased the property and a strategic plan began. In the ensuing seven years, the Initiative has established the following programs: job training and placement, with an 85% success rate, case management services for substance abuse, short-term crisis and transitional affordable housing, a non-custodial father’s program to reunite Veterans with their children, and rehabilitation services for disabled Veterans. The Initiative has housed and served more than 2000 homeless Veterans since 1993; 83% of them have successfully reclaimed their lives.
The real secret to the Initiative’s success has been its deft use of volunteers. Its most important strategic partner has been the Corporation for National Service’s AmeriCorps. The AmeriCorps volunteers started every major initiative that was undertaken to fulfill its mission: food service, the career center, outreach, and the clinical components. Young college graduates volunteered their time and efforts to build the foundation, the nascent outline of the stable of services through which Veterans would reclaim their lives.
During the early years, the Initiative relied solely on community volunteers. They would teach a course, offer a seminar, or help with holiday celebrations. Individuals would offer remedial math, and reading, computer repair, or “how to” courses like how to write a resume, and how to manage finances.
During a five-year period, from 1994-99, 350 AmeriCorps members, ages 22-70, have service approximately 70,000 homeless individuals, 50% of whom were veterans. Of the AmeriCorps volunteers, 40% are Veterans themselves, many of them formerly homeless. This year alone, AmeriCorps members reached 17,300 homeless individuals through outreach, 8000 referrals to specific services and 2000 were screened into programs, 775 homeless were helped in their search for long-term housing, 589 were placed in job training or found employment, 2,896 were provided individual case management services, and 1,000 were provided with meals.