Michael Vercelli is a formerly homeless veteran now living at the Mather Veteran’s Village.

Life After Service

Unique in Northern California, the new Mather Veterans Village offers former service men and women a new lease on life

Back Longreads Jan 18, 2018 By Karen Wilkinson

Raised in Oakland by a family entrenched in drugs, alcohol and a notorious biker gang, Michael Vercelli says he’s been an alcoholic since age 12. He didn’t attend school until the fourth grade. At age 18, Vercelli says he made the best decision of his life by joining the U.S. Navy.

“I did really well in the Navy — until they let me off the boat.” Michael Vercelli, resident, Mather Veterans Village

“I did really well in the Navy,” the 57-year-old veteran reflects, “until they let me off the boat.”

After his discharge in 1981, he spent years working as a carpenter and journeyman, but every decision he made was clouded by his addictive behavior and squandered opportunities.

In his mid-50s, Vercelli says he “gave up,” and became homeless. Shortly thereafter he was advised to contact Veterans Affairs to receive benefits, which led him to enter rehab at Sacramento’s River City Recovery Center.

Today, he’s a recovering alcoholic and addict — and one of the first tenants at Mather Veterans Village, a new housing project on the former Mather Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova designed to serve veterans through permanent and transitional housing — who relies on the support of staff members and his fellow veterans to stay on the straight and narrow.

“I’m better today than in a long time,” Vercelli admits, noting that he looks scarier than he actually is. (He is a skinny man with long, graying blond hair and tattooed arms.) “But I’m a teddy bear.”

To veteran housing experts, Vercelli is exactly where he’s supposed to be: living in an environment designed for veterans with built-in support services and a sense of community. Solitude and isolation are veterans’ enemies, and this living facility nearly eliminates those elements, says Kevin Walker of the Veterans Resource Centers of America Sacramento chapter, who serves as MVV’s on-site director.

The veterans – who must be formerly homeless, disabled, and/or low income to qualify – really help each other at Mather Veterans Village, Walker says.

“There’s a sense of community here. They take care of each other, they cook for each other. If one is having a medical problem or issue, whatever it is, they’re always here for each other.”

An Obvious Need

The Mather Veterans Village is a unique effort in Northern California to provide permanent housing and on-site supportive services for veterans located on the former Mather Air Force Base in Rancho Cordova. It’s the result – ten years in the making – of a collaboration between the City of Rancho Cordova, Mercy Housing, Veterans Resource Center of America, and the County of Sacramento.

The first of three phases was completed in summer 2016, and as the only development of its kind in the Sacramento region (with the Veterans Affairs hospital a block away), it includes a three-story building with 44 one-bedroom apartments and six two-bedroom apartments (for families). Once completed, it will offer 100 units of permanent housing and 46 transitional units.

Ground has yet to be broken on the remaining phases however, as organizers are trying to secure between $500,000 and $2 million to complete the project, says City of Rancho Cordova Spokeswoman Maria Kniestedt. “We’re continuing to meet with potential partners to meet that funding gap,” she says, adding that, “we’re hoping to break ground end of 2017 or early 2018.”

Phase 2 will include the supportive services and transitional housing component of the overall project, with a 46-bed transitional housing program, the Veterans Resource Center’s supportive services programs and administrative offices, a commercial kitchen and a chef to provide three meals daily to residents. Phase 3 will include another 50 permanent homes.

The Village meets an obvious need: About 11 percent of the homeless adult population in the U.S. are veterans, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. Of this group, 70 percent have substance abuse problems, 51 percent have disabilities and half suffer from serious mental illness.

California is home to the largest veteran population with 1.85 million veterans and thousands more returning from military service each year, according to the California Association of Veterans Service Agencies, a consortium of six nonprofit veterans service providers, based out of Santa Rosa, working together to address the needs of the state’s veterans.

Veterans are disproportionately represented in California’s homeless population, according to data from CAVSA, and they experience employment challenges greater than their peers. These challenges include translating their military-training and skills into a civilian workplace, overcoming stigma and stereotypes, and employers’ hesitation to hire veterans.

Burt McChesney, executive director of the Veterans Housing Development Corporation, who also serves on the Veterans Resource Centers of America board, says not only do veterans represent a disproportionate share of the homeless population, but their acuity of need is greater.

“Because of their PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, and military and VA-induced opiate addictions, it makes them a difficult population to serve, but one that is very important, morally and socially for us to serve, because they went and served us,” McChesney says.

Housing projects such as the Mather Veterans Village that are dedicated to former service men and women struggling with meeting life’s basic needs address the complexity of homelessness, a condition plagued with misunderstanding, stereotypes and finger pointing, according to McChesney.

“They are a paycheck away, or the end of the patience of a family member, away from homelessness,” he says. “Having someone be patient enough to let you continue sleeping on their couch is not a good strategy for long term permanent housing.”

“While we’re very proud of Mather Veterans Village, and looking to final completion, and its ability to serve veterans in the future, there’s still a big need,” McChesney says.

The project is supported financially by the City of Rancho Cordova and many other local organizations, including the County of Sacramento, California Department of Housing and Community Development, California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, Home Depot Foundation, Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, Sacramento Steps Forward, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VA Northern California Health Care System and Wells Fargo Bank — to name a few.

Through advocacy work, veterans groups throughout the state helped secure money for the Veterans Village and other housing projects statewide through Proposition 41.

“Mather Veterans Village follows a long line of housing projects that agencies like the Veterans Resource Center and their development partners have created over the years,” says Steve Peck, president and CEO of the United States Veterans Initiative, based out of Los Angeles. “It’s not only housing, but the solution to homelessness is housing connected to services, which is critical.”

Social Support

It’s a supportive network that’s missing on the streets. Veterans can lose their ties to friends and family when relationships fray as a result of substance abuse, mental illness or other fallout.

Such an example is the Veterans Village of San Diego, which with five locations throughout the county, has been operating since the early ‘80s and provides a “continuum of care” for homeless veterans just coming off the street, to those with substance abuse and trauma issues, to those in permanent housing.

“One size doesn’t fit all, so we’ll build a specific program that’s determined by a needs analysis when you get here,” says Phil Landis, president of the VVSD. “No one has a long-term residential trauma center like ours, but you’ll find commonality in all the major California service providers.”

Ground was recently broken on a permanent housing project in Escondido, Landis says, which aims to serve 100, with 54 units of one, two, and three-bedroom units. He anticipates occupancy by early 2018.

Another example is in Long Beach, Calif. – the Century Villages at Cabrillo – which offers 572 affordable homes throughout the 27-acre campus community.

“All of us have a social network of friends and family, and all that support is even more important to veterans,” Peck says. “Those who have been homeless have lost that social network. Part of what we want to do, after we get them stabilized, is to rebuild that.”

Because California has so many large military bases, and many veterans are discharged here, too many end up on the streets, says Peck, of the United States Veterans Initiative. The challenge, he says, is to get government agencies (such as the state, counties, cities, Veterans Affairs and HUD) involved and working together to address the homeless situation.

“We share this common philosophy that housing without services will not solve the problem,” Peck says.

One of the Veterans Village’s simplest features, a few benches in the courtyard, have facilitated healing, says Rancho Cordova Councilman David Sander, who was pivotal in the early development stages of the project.

“They can wake up in the middle of the night, and they find those benches in the courtyard are the best therapy they can find,” Sander says, who was serving as the mayor of Rancho Cordova when Phase 1 was completed. “At any time of the day there’s someone there … nobody planned that — it’s a total accident — but to see it work that way is pretty gratifying.”

Peck says Mather Veterans Village and other housing projects in the state (such as in San Diego, Long Beach, Los Angeles and the Bay Area) with built-in services are the best model to serve the chronically homeless vet population. While many have income from disability and/or Social Security, many don’t remain housed due to “the variety of issues that got them homeless in the first place.”

With case management, “it gives us the ability to work with them, stabilize them, and make sure when they get into housing, that they remain there,” Peck says.

In the meantime, Walker says services continue to expand at Mather Veterans Village, including the recent addition of an on-site 12-step recovery meeting. The American Red Cross recently signed on to facilitate classes such as employment coaching, resume building, CPR training, finance management, nutrition, stress management, parenting and more.

Tenant retention has been relatively high, Walker says, with only four or five moving in the last year. “Most of the time, people want to stay here forever,” he says.

McChesney says as the United State’s military activity around the world increases, so will veterans’ needs when they return home. “There’s been this historical, steady increase in the exposure of veterans to combat circumstances, which leads to both PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and other physical disabilities,” he said. “A lot of painkiller abuse is common.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran, and the typical veteran served one year in combat, came home and got out of service. The current soldiers are serving, two, three, four and five tours, and exposed to much in that combat theater.”

For Vercelli, the permanent apartment and access to resources has made life more manageable, though he’s cautious to say he’s got anything solved. “I still battle demons every day,” he says. “I got dragons I need to slay.””

This story is part of the 22nd annual Capital Region Cares, Comstock’s special publication dedicated to nonprofits and charitable giving. You can order the 2017-2018 edition online here. To submit your nonprofit success story for consideration in next year’s edition, fill out this online form.