A secret sanctuary

We love our war heroes, but we forget about them when they come home. That’s why some Chico veterans took matters in their own hands and quietly began turning lives around.

CASUALTIES OF WAR No-longer-homeless veterans Ralph Logan, Winfred “Butch” Mason and Gene Ross congregate in the Chapmantown VECTORS house living room with intern John Gallagher <p>for a house meeting. The house has provided shelter and support for otherwise homeless veterans since 1996.</p>

CASUALTIES OF WAR No-longer-homeless veterans Ralph Logan, Winfred “Butch” Mason and Gene Ross congregate in the Chapmantown VECTORS house living room with intern John Gallagher

for a house meeting. The house has provided shelter and support for otherwise homeless veterans since 1996.

Photo By Tom Angel

Ralph Logan’s skin hangs off his face like a wrinkled sweater. His eyes are filled with red veins. His hands shake when he moves to pick up tobacco and papers to roll a cigarette.

At first glance he is a man without hope, someone too old and set in his ways to change, an ancient alcoholic.

But the 67-year-old Logan may surprise you. He is a veteran. He fought in the Korean War. And even though he’s homeless and admits he can burn through a 12-pack and not feel the effects, Logan has been sober for almost two months. It is the longest he has been dry since he joined the Air Force in 1954.

“I shut it off. I blocked it out of my mind,” Logan said about kicking the habit as he sat on the front porch of the only veterans’ rehabilitation house of its kind in California. “Now I’m gonna find me a damn job. I’m gettin’ lazy.”

Logan is sober, off the streets and looking for work thanks to a Chico-based veterans'-services program called VECTORS and the six-bunk rehabilitation house the program operates in Chapmantown.

What is truly amazing about this organization is that it has flown under the community’s radar since 1988. And, when VECTORS started its own shelter exclusively for homeless vets in 1996, no one noticed.

Operating on less than $16,000 a year and run entirely by veterans and people from military families, VECTORS is one of Chico’s best-kept secrets. But to vets like Ralph Logan and about 100 others who have lived in the VECTORS house, it is something else. To them it is more than just a shelter. It is a place to heal, a place to grow, a place to feel needed and appreciated—a sanctuary.

At a time when the president is flown onto aircraft carriers with all the fanfare of a conquering hero and the POW/MIA flag and Old Glory hang lazily in the summer heat in front of Chico’s City Council building, it is perhaps shocking that people who have been through so much for their country even need a sanctuary. But, like the house tucked away on Cleveland Street, the problems veterans face have gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the country. As a result, it is up to other vets to help their own.

Nestled among other low-income dwellings on Chapmantown’s Cleveland Street, the VECTORS house is largely indistinguishable from its neighbors. The only thing marking it is a faded 3-by-12-inch wooden sign hanging above steps that lead to the door. Carved in the wood are three words: “Vectors House Vets.”

Keeping a low profile has been the key to VECTORS’ survival and success and was the reason VECTORS President Mike Helm and Vice-president Les Orme picked Chapmantown as the backdrop for their homeless program.

Orme said that by being inconspicuous they were able to escape the attention of all the “NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard] types” who would oppose a homeless-veterans’ shelter in Chico. Keeping the program largely out of sight from the rest of the community was also a plus for Orme and Helm, who like being low-key anyway.

“We weren’t out to blow our own horn,” Helm said. “Plenty of vets were coming through our doors. That’s all that mattered.”

To the vets living at the house, being off the beaten path has given them the opportunity to grow, both mentally and in a more vegetal sense of the word.

They have turned most of the house’s large back yard into a successful garden, complete with flourishing rows of corn, beans, peas, lettuce and tomatoes. They do the work to keep the garden growing and even pay for expenses out of their own pockets.

VECTORS Intern John Gallagher said the vets have developed a bond with their mostly Hispanic neighbors by trading veggies for tostadas and tortillas. And because they are involved in the maintenance of the house and garden, they have become part of the neighborhood.

“By cleaning and keeping up with the yard and garden, they’re showing respect,” Gallagher said.

Fellow intern Jeff Workman said the garden has also become a metaphor for the growing process vets experience while living in the house.

“When people are in the recovery process, you plant a seed, and over a period of time it takes root,” Workman said. “Soon you have growth.”

To Helm this experience was what he and Orme intended when they came up with the idea for the house. They wanted vets to grow, but it was up to each veteran to make the decision to change his own life for the better.

“No matter what you do, it has to be the individual’s responsibility,” Helm said. “It’s the same as building a house. They’re putting their hands in something they’ve done.”

Helm and Orme are mellow, good natured guys who radiate an air of gruff compassion. They both survived the extremely unpopular Vietnam War and came back with a distinctly bitter view of what politicians do, or don’t do, to support veterans.

VECTORS stands for Veterans Executive Committee to Organize Rehabilitative Service, but if you ask Helm or Orme what the program is all about, they will tell you that VECTORS operates under the simple philosophy of “vets helping vets.”

“There’s a sense in this country that vets are well taken care of,” Orme said in the VECTORS office on East First Street behind 7-Eleven. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

THE MAN BEHIND VECTORS President Mike Helm (left) sits behind his desk at the organization’s office in downtown Chico. Helm is a veteran himself, and his commitment to VECTORS is a case of “vets helping vets.”

Photo By Tom Angel

Orme said that, because services for vets, especially homeless ones, are so lacking, it was up to other vets to go try to do something. This is why in 1988 a committee of 11 Chico veterans got together and formed VECTORS.

“The best way to help vets is at the local level,” Helm said.

Helm, who became VECTORS president in 1995, said that for the most part vets in the Chico area have to travel long distances to get services. The nearest full-service veterans’ facilities are in White City, Ore., and in Palo Alto. There is also a facility in Redding that offers limited services to vets but has to serve veterans from seven counties.

That was why VECTORS lobbied for the placement of a Veterans Center in Chico. The center on Cohasset Road offers a few basic services such as counseling and an outpatient medical clinic. Orme said it is the only veterans’ center in California put into place entirely via grassroots lobbying.

It was a step in the right direction for vets, Orme said. But he and Helm soon realized that it wasn’t doing enough to get vets off Chico’s streets.

According to the 2000 census, there are 23,000 vets in Butte County—about 10 percent of the population. At the same time, a 2002 study by Chico State University’s Social Work Program said there are around 300 homeless people on the streets of Chico at any given time. Of them, up to 30 percent are vets.

“In ‘95 Mike and I took a small chunk of money and, with no organization, went out with the very vague idea of setting up a homeless program,” Orme said.

The organization receives its meager $16,000 from four sources: a grant from Butte County Behavioral Health that pays for rent and utilities for the First Street office; one or two fund-raisers a year; a $12,000 block development grant from the city of Chico; and vending machines set up in businesses around Chico.

VECTORS does a lot with very little.

When the house finally opened in 1996, the VECTORS staff, made up primarily of veteran interns and work-study students from Chico State University and Butte College, transformed the four-bedroom rental home into a sanctuary. Since then, it has housed more than 100 vets for stays as short as a few months to longer than a year.

Orme, who was once homeless himself, said the house provides something different from the usual homeless shelter. He calls it a “transitional housing” program.

“There’s the idea in this country of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” Orme said. “But by the time you’re homeless you don’t have any boots.”

According to a study submitted to the California Veterans Board by the California Department of Veterans Affairs, vets make up nearly a third of the homeless population in the United States. What most angers the staff at VECTORS is the fact that the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) only has $5 million set aside for homeless veterans’ rehabilitation programs nationwide.

To put this in perspective, the Veterans Affairs study said there are nearly 275,000 homeless veterans on the streets. Splitting the VA’s funding equally to each homeless vet would come out to about $20 per person.

With so few resources available, VECTORS does whatever it can to get vets off the streets. Orme said that the program not only helps vets find a pair of boots, but also gives them the motivation to do something after they have put them on.

VECTORS differs from traditional homeless programs because it doesn’t rely on handouts. “It’s not a ‘flop and stop,'” Orme said. “It’s a place where people can go to put their life together.”

Orme is referring to the services VECTORS provides vets at the home. In addition to helping them look for such basics as jobs and housing, VECTORS takes 70 percent of a vet’s income and holds the funds in a savings program until there is enough money to leave.

At the same time, VECTORS helps vets find where they can go for aid with such problems as legal issues, going back to school or tracking down VA services. VECTORS also helps vets jump through the hoops and wade through the miles of paperwork necessary to qualify and receive a VA pension.

These services are not available just to homeless vets living in the VECTORS house. Orme said the office on First Street offers the same services to all veterans, homeless or otherwise.

“We help them to utilize the resources available,” Orme said.

If you didn’t know Jerry Harper was homeless and living in the VECTORS house, he wouldn’t look that different from your average 58-year-old having a cup of coffee in his back yard on a lazy afternoon.

By all appearances, he could be your coworker, your boss, or someone you might stand next to and talk about how proud you are of your kid at a college graduation. He looks like your typical clean-cut, middle-class American man. In Harper’s case, looks aren’t all that deceiving.

Harper was a computer technician making $37 an hour and living in Chula Vista when he lost his job in January of last year. Like many of the vets living in the VECTORS house, Harper fell on hard times, and his world crumbled. Unemployed and faced with a painful hernia that kept him out of the job market, Harper spiraled into homelessness.

Having nowhere else to go, he came to Chico looking for help because his son was going to school here.

“He’s a disabled vet, too. I was livin’ on his patio,” Harper said behind a pair of thick glasses and a thicker Tennessee drawl.

Harper got into the VECTORS house in September and during his stay had his hernia operation. Thanks to the house’s quiet atmosphere and support structure, Harper said he was given a place to heal both mentally and physically. The house was a place to put his life together.

LABOR OF LOVE Recovering alcoholic and veteran Ralph Logan tends the thriving VECTORS house garden, a literal and metaphoric victory for the residents. Working in the garden is a small but significant step for veterans who have forgotten what it is like both to take care of something and be taken care of.

Photo By Tom Angel

“It’s the only place I know of,” Harper said a few weeks prior to leaving the home at the end of May. “If you’re a veteran and you don’t got a pension, all you’ve got is the shelter.”

Harper said he got to know traditional homeless shelters all too well as he waited to see a VA doctor. While bouncing from shelter to shelter, he was awakened at 5 in the morning and told to leave. He said with a hernia it was unbearable. Even after getting into the VECTORS house, he said he still had to wait months before finally getting his surgery.

VECTORS also helped Harper fill out the paperwork and jump through the necessary hoops to get his pension. Plus, the organization helped him budget enough of his money to get back on his feet.

The best part, Harper said, is his improved health. “I can walk two blocks without pushin’ my guts back in,” Harper said.

Walking is just what Harper plans on doing. Though he said he may go back to college to get a degree in electrical engineering sometime in the future, his plans at the end of May were to hike the Pacific Crest Trail.

Although Harper was in the Navy and deployed five times during the Vietnam War, he had to wait six months to receive the health care guaranteed to anyone who joins the military. Those familiar with the VA say it is nothing new.

VECTORS President Mike Helm said that, if a vet needs immediate care in Chico, he cannot go to the clinic on Cohasset Road because it offers only outpatient services and it takes about three to four weeks to get an appointment. He said a vet could drive up to Redding to get into the walk-in clinic there, but he might have problems getting in because Redding’s program has cut back its resources.

As a result, Helm said, many vets end up going to the costly hospital emergency room.

He said it is sad that many vets don’t know that basic services such as health care are out there for vets and have no one to point them in the right direction.

“It’s about knowledge,” Helm said. “There are 50-year-olds who don’t know about the limited services available.”

That’s where VECTORS fits in.

“We just approach it from the level of our own experience,” Helm said. “We try to do what it takes; we try to approach it as vets helping other vets—we offer a hand up, not a handout.”

“If it wasn’t for this house I’d either be dead or in prison,” said 56-year-old Winfred “Butch” Mason, another one of the six veterans staying at the VECTORS house.

Mason has the twitchy, distracted look of a heroin addict, and ghosts of old track marks run up his skinny arms. Mason, like Ralph Logan, could give a person the impression of someone who has been addicted for so long that he will never change.

But if you’re lucky enough to start a conversation with Mason, you’ll see an easy smile and the glimmer of something you don’t see in the eyes of many heroin addicts—hope.

Thanks to VECTORS, the Vietnam vet who served three tours in the Navy said he’s finally gotten the chance to kick the habit that has made him homeless. Mason said he’s tried everything to get away from the needle but did not have motivation or the support of his family and friends.

Mason has been at the VECTORS house since October and plans on going to Palo Alto for rehab treatment in a few months to finally commit to his recovery.

“I didn’t have the support structure before,” Mason said. “I do now. This place saved my life.”

Drug abusers like Mason and alcoholics like Logan demonstrate the No. 1 reason why vets are on the street and the biggest issue that the VECTORS staff faces on a daily basis—the problem of substance abuse.

According to the Veterans Affairs study, nearly 65 percent of the nation’s 300 million veterans suffer from some sort of drug or alcohol problem.

Forty-seven-year-old Jeff Workman, one of the Chico State interns working for VECTORS, can relate to being homeless. Workman, who has been without a place to live four times since he ended his 20-year Navy career, said substance abuse is one of the issues tied directly to homelessness.

In order to get back into society, Workman, a registered substance abuse counselor, said a vet has to win the battle with drugs or the bottle before he can succeed in anything else. “First you’ve got to put the fire out,” Workman said. “You’ve got to treat substance abuse first before you can deal with the other things.”

Workman is angered that the government does not do enough to address the drug and alcohol crisis with vets. According to the Veteran Affairs study, nearly half of all homeless veterans suffer from some sort of substance abuse problem.

He’s frustrated that, between 1995 and 2002, VA substance abuse treatment programs took a $323 billion cut—a 48 percent decrease in funding.

“The funding just isn’t in the right place,” said 25-year-old John Gallagher, an ex-Marine and another Chico State intern working at VECTORS.

DRUG WAR Butch Mason, one of the six veterans in the shelter, credits the house for his triumph over heroin. Substance abuse plagues almost 65 percent of American veterans and is the main reason why so many veterans end up on the street.

Photo By Tom Angel

Gallagher and the dozen or so other students like him who volunteer for VECTORS do what they can to help keep the program afloat by volunteering time, transportation and even cash out of their own pockets. “Every day someone gives a little out of their own,” Gallagher said.

“We don’t care if you’re a doctor, if you’ve been a millionaire, black, white or been in combat,” Gallagher said. “We’re going to help you reach your goals to be independent.”

Myron Haraughty may have never been in combat, but when the bottom fell out from under him, he needed help just the same.

The quiet 56-year-old Air Force vet used to be an electronics technician, but when he took time off work and moved to Gridley from Washington to care for his mother, he found himself out of the job market for six years.

When she died his savings were gone and he had two and one-half weeks to move out of her apartment. He was homeless and on his own.

He’s been at the VECTORS house since October.

“It’s been good,” Haraughty said. “It gave me a place to stay and a base to look for a job.”

Haraughty has been working at Wal-Mart full time since late November. He almost has enough cash saved up and plans on leaving the house on July 1.

“I’m excited about [leaving], but I’m going to miss it too,” Haraughty said. “I’ve made some good friends here.”

These friends are exactly the type of support network VECTORS encourages.

Gallagher, who works on a one-on-one basis with the vets at the home, said being in the military taught these men loyalty and camaraderie. By relying on one another, the vets help themselves. They play a larger part in the healing process than staff members do.

“The military is one of the most multicultural, diverse groups in the world,” Gallagher said. “You lose all bias to the people sleeping next to you.”

Gallagher said one of the reasons why there are so many problems with vets in this country is because of America’s individualism. When a person joins the military, individuality is stripped away. He is told he has someone looking out for him. After leaving the service, he is on his own again.

Comparing the close, one-on-one support structure the military provides to America’s belief in the self-made-man is like comparing apples and oranges. Some vets cannot cope to the adjustment, he said. “The military is like a big family,” Gallagher said. “The real world just isn’t that way.”

Orme shared similar sentiments. He said that people who have never been in the military or have never witnessed the effects of war have no idea what those changes do to a person coming back to society.

“Watching Saving Private Ryan is a lot different than being Private Ryan,” Orme said. “Being Private Ryan will affect your life.”

Butch Mason couldn’t agree more. He said that the lingering guilt he felt after Vietnam was one of the reasons he turned to drugs.

“Every weapon that went past me—they worked,” Mason said about the bomb delivery system that he developed in the Navy.

When asked if he thought veterans coming back from Iraq would go through the same experience he did, he said he is not sure but knows that just because a war is high-tech doesn’t mean people don’t feel its effects.

“You kill people even though you don’t see it,” Mason said.

Intern Jeff Workman said that, though people may have nothing but compassion for their troops, once the bombs have quit falling and the celebration has died down, vets are swept under the rug.

“People think that supporting the troops means supporting veterans,” Workman said. “People just don’t think of that at the start of the war.”

Les Orme couldn’t help but voice his frustration at those in Washington who so quickly approved funding for a $60 billion war but do so little to help veterans in small communities like Chico.

“Nobody wants to pay for the wars we’ve already fought,” Orme said.

With a single B-2 stealth bomber costing taxpayers $2.1 billion and military spending accounting for more than half of every taxpayer dollar spent in the discretionary budget, Orme feels justified in his frustration with where the government’s priorities lie.

“One bomber could make the difference in millions of lives,” he said.

Orme and the rest of the staff at VECTORS agree that trying to make a difference for vets is the least they can do for their fellow servicemen, because in the land of yellow ribbons and red, white and blue, vets are often neglected.

“Once the parade is over the vet is forgotten," Orme said.