A home of their own
When Leon Shance’s car was stolen, he was a lost man without a home or an identity. All of his documents—birth certificate, driver’s license, everything—were in that car. But he was an Air Force veteran, so when local law enforcement proved no help, he turned to the nonprofit organization VECTORS.
“I was retired, on vacation, and I couldn’t even cash my Social Security check without ID,” Shance explained. “VECTORS is what did it for me.”
Veterans Executive Committee to Organize Rehabilitative Services used to have an office on First Street in downtown Chico. That’s where Shance found the assistance he needed. And friends. The office moved earlier this year to the Jerry L. Knight Transitional Living Facility more than a mile away on Rio Lindo Avenue. The house, which opened in November, has 15 beds for veterans to help them get them back on their feet. It’s the second house VECTORS opened for just that reason.
On June 14, also Flag Day, VECTORS held its grand opening of the new facility, which is named after the founder of VECTORS. One of the guest speakers was among the Marines who toppled the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, David Sutherland from Chico.
Demand for rooms, which run $150 per month, is high. The volunteers at VECTORS estimate that there are 250 homeless vets in the area. And there are currently 10 people on the waiting list to live in one of the homes.
“But we do a lot more than just help homeless veterans,” said Phil Rothberg, a paralegal studying to be a lawyer and one of the three full-time volunteers at VECTORS. “We also help vets with substance-abuse problems, we help them get their GEDs and to reintegrate into society.”
One of Rothberg’s main objectives is to help veterans get the benefits they deserve from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “I fought the VA for 14 years,” he said. He hopes others won’t have the same struggle.
In Shance’s case, VECTORS helped him to get his identity back. He worked with nuclear weapons in the Air Force and then in a radiation lab, among other jobs, before retiring. He describes his circumstances lightly, saying it’s not a sob story. But by his smile, it is obvious he is happy to be where he is now—living in the transitional living house with other vets like himself—and not on the streets.
“The most important thing is the self-esteem we’re building in the veterans,” said Susan Gordon, administrative assistant at VECTORS. “Many of them start out down-and-out and depressed. We get them counseling, on medication, encourage them to get jobs. And once they’ve saved a little money, their self-esteem goes up.”
Rothberg said they also try to make the veterans more social. Instead of the vets taking their meals back to their rooms, for example—something Rothberg calls part of the “homeless mentality"—the staff tries to help them to interact more. Each resident has a job to do around the house, and dinners are usually communal meals.
Marcus Frank, an Army vet, lives at the organization’s other house, on Cleveland Street in the Chapman neighborhood, and comes to the Knight building on weekends to cook. While he is preparing a chicken dinner, the residents go about their business, doing laundry, smoking on the patio, watching TV. But when dinner is ready, all of the residents, or at least those who are home, convene in the dining room to eat together.
VECTORS is funded in part by a city grant as well as by fundraising and donations. Rothberg said they plan to apply for other grants, including a sizeable one from the VA. If they receive that grant, a new office downtown will be a priority. The staff—three people—are volunteers, and during the summer there are usually two interns who also work without pay.
The best thing about the organization? “Not being homeless,” Frank says bluntly.