Vets Helping Vets

On the edge of Hollywood, where homeless veterans of foreign wars have roamed the streets for decades, an infant program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is trying to get its legs.

After a renovation earlier this year, Volunteers of America Los Angeles opened its transitional housing location on Sunset Boulevard in July. Now more than 20 veterans call it home while they battle post-traumatic stress disorder, drug and alcohol addictions and other problems.

The need is so great that the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged $3.2 billion in 2009 to try and decrease the number of veterans landing on the streets.

But the department may be fighting a losing battle. A 2009 report by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, found that veterans of the last decade's wars become homeless much faster than veterans of Vietnam — months instead of years.

You go over to Iraq and you realize bad things can happen to good people.

"I was here before the toasters," said Justin Hoffman, who was the center's first client in July. Hoffman served at Camp Pendleton from 2001-2005, where he taught cadets how to shoot rifles.

Hoffman said he suffers from alcoholism and had been living in his car or homeless for most of 2009, before he found his way to the Veterans Affairs hospital on the west side of L.A. But Hoffman said that while the highly regimented treatment he found at the VA helped him stop drinking, it did not help him take the necessary steps to re-enter society.

Hoffman said the Volunteers of America program has been a great transition and allowed him to begin having normal interactions with civilians, including regular trips to the public library.

"It seems like we’re fairing really well taking a person-centered approach with the younger vets," said Jim Zenner, the VOALA Hollywood program manager and a veteran of the second Iraq war.

"A lot of the old-school confrontation intense case management doesn’t seem to be working with the younger guys, so it seems like what we’re doing is working compared with the other programs out there."

Zenner, who graduated earlier this year from the University of Southern California School of Social Work, said VOALA uses a harm reduction model. That means if a veteran is caught using drugs or drinking, he is not kicked out.

"We try to use that," Zenner said. "What were the triggers beforehand? What do you think was the main trigger that caused you to use. And we work with them and show them that we’re not going to take a punitive stance on relapse. It’s part of recovery and it seems to be working."

Zenner said often the most challenging thing for vets to deal with is anger. He said veterans often find their world views shattered when they go to war. "You go over to Iraq and you realize bad things can happen to good people."

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