Veterans Advocates to Focus on Affordable Housing and Healthcare

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Fresh off their latest win toward building a veterans cemetery in Orange County, local advocates are working to keep that project on track and build momentum around other veterans issues.

Chief among them are creating more affordable housing and improving medical care access, including advocating for a veterans hospital in the county.

When veterans return home, “there’s issues with housing, with jobs” and at the same time “they’ve got families that they’ve got to support,” said Jim Torres, senior vice commander with the California chapter of Disabled American Veterans. “When you come home and you can’t take care of your family – how is that, after all that they’ve been through?”

Gary Colletti, a service officer with Vietnam Veterans of America, said he frequently hears about veterans and their families – including those with young children – becoming homeless.

“Half my questions [I’m asked] in helping veterans getting their benefits is, ‘Is there someplace I can live at a reasonable price that you know of?’ Or, ‘Can I get services from the county or the state’ to help with housing?” Colletti said.

Torres and Colletti were speaking after last week’s meeting of the advocate-led Orange County Veteran’s Memorial Park Committee, where members celebrated their veterans cemetery progress and planned next steps.

Colletti and two other committee members volunteered for a housing task force that plans to work to make expand affordable housing opportunities.

The movement also comes as a new county veterans chief is slated to be appointed this morning.

County supervisors are considering the appointment of Marco Martinez, a decorated former Marine who served in Iraq in 2003,

He was the first Latino-American to be awarded the Navy Cross since the Vietnam War, for his actions when his platoon was ambushed by insurgents and repeatedly came under heavy fire for four hours during the Battle of At Tarmiyah.

Martinez single-handedly ended the the assault by rushing into a house and killing five insurgents on his own, according to a biography provided by county officials. More recently, he has served as a veterans claims officer for the county.

If appointed tomorrow, Martinez would oversee the county’s Veterans Service Office, whose 13 employees are tasked with helping veterans and their families are file for federal and state benefits they’re entitled to.

Martinez would also analyze data to improve his team’s efforts and make policy recommendations.

The supervisors meeting starts at 9:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, over the past several months the veterans committee has worked to build up crucial buy-in from local politicians for their efforts.

When it comes to issues like jobs, housing and mental health, advocates say it’s often extremely difficult for veterans to transition back to civilian life.

“Their wives and families say they’re not the same person any more. And they self-medicate a lot of times, and try to stay strong but a lot of them end up going down because they can’t succeed as fast as they’d like to,” said Colletti.

The biggest challenge, he added, “is getting jobs and making that transition so they can live the way they were when they left.”

On the housing front, they’ve gained support from Irvine Councilwoman Christina Shea, whom they plan to work with on developing plans for Irvine.

“I did call Councilwoman Shea’s office to thank her for her cemetery vote, and to let her know we are eager to being discussing the veteran’s housing goals of the [city’s] ad hoc committee,” said Bill Cook, an American Legion commander, in an email Monday.

A newly-passed veterans housing program, Proposition 41, will provide an influx of money for local projects. Advocates say only about $5 million is expected to be available in Orange County initially, a level that could change.

As for medical care, advocates pointed out that Orange County is the most populous county in America without its own veterans hospital, advocates said.

While veterans have access to limited clinics in Santa Ana and Anaheim, for many medical issues they’re referred to the nearest veterans hospital in Long Beach.

Given the distance, Disabled American Veterans and others help transport veterans to their appointments in Long Beach.

At the same time, advocates say that there’s likely enough need in Orange County to justify a new hospital.

“If there’s sufficient demand, there should be services,” said Cook.

Several local residents have emphasized the importance of getting feedback directly from veterans as the community tackles these issues.

“Get direct input from Veterans about what they want,” wrote Phillip Anaya, one of more than 20 commenters on a recent Facebook discussion.

“Using the typical bureaucratic models will only produce the same old inefficient programs,” said Brea-based blogger Rick Clark in a Twitter message.

The new efforts come on the heels of the committee’s early success towards getting a state veterans cemetery built in Orange County.

Following months of advocacy work by the committee, Irvine council members designated a piece of land at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro – now the Orange County Great Park.

Last month’s decision was a big step toward getting a cemetery built, but advocates are mindful that there’s still a long road ahead.

“This is not a slam dunk by any means,” said Cook, noting that there are still environmental and funding issues to resolve.

So far, the most-involved politicians in the cemetery effort have been Democrats Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton), Congresswoman Lorreta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Irvine Councilman Larry Agran.

The committee is led by advocates, with representatives of local elected officials in attendance and giving advice on how to navigate the political process and build support.

Among their efforts to gain support, advocates have arranged face-to-face meetings with Irvine council members and emails to city managers and council members across the county.

And for those who do commit to supporting the cemetery, advocates follow-up with thank you letters.

At last week’s meeting, Cook opened up the floor to questions from committee members, with Cook and others chiming in to respond.

Prompted by Dr. Richard Ramirez, committee members talked through the challenges that still remain in getting the cemetery built.

Legislation that would establish the cemetery was approved by the state Assembly and went to the Senate’s appropriations committee on Monday.

After changes were suggested, the Quirk-Silva-authored bill is supposed to come back to that committee at a future date, according to the Legislature’s website.

If passed by the full Senate, the bill would go to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

Advocates plan to provide Brown’s office with numerous letters from community members supporting the cemetery bill, along with nothing supportive resolutions passed by local city councils.

“It would behoove your mission” to stay involved as process moved forward, said a representative of Quirk-Silva.

“I think there’s a huge role to be played by the community,” he added, encouraging members to advocate their local state senators.

Advocates have gotten 19 cities in Orange County to support the bill, advocates say, adding that it would be “powerful” to have all 34 cities sign on by the time the governor has to make his decision.

Orange, Yorba Linda, San Clemente and Rancho Santa Margarita are among the cities that haven’t yet passed resolutions in support.

If the bill gains the governor’s signature, the project would fall under the purview of the state Department of Veteran Affairs, or CalVet.

Advocates don’t expect construction to start sometime from early 2018 onward anyways.

The developer has agreed in the past to terraform the parcel of land now designated for the cemetery, Cook said.

As for affordable housing, committee members plan to take up the issue at their next meeting, on Aug. 12. Updates are available through their Facebook page, available by clicking here.

Pointing to a jump in suicide rates in recent years, Torres said veterans deserve to have strong community support.

“The suicide rate right now is off the charts.  We want to take care of them and make them feel like they belong,” said Torres. “They’re a part of this country. They’re a part of this society.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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