Thursday, April 25, 2002
Photo by Andrew Scutro.
Photo: Bill Cornelius and Marcus Hatcher were among the first 14 veterans to move into newly restored housing at Fort Ord.
It''s dinnertime on Hayes Circle and ex-doorgunner Bill Cornelius barbecues three fat pieces of chicken while smoking a Marlboro Light. As he works the grill set up at his front door, a neighbor''s kid sits perched on a cement curb, looking up at the tall man-and his food. Cornelius wears shorts, white socks and Birkenstocks, scars cross-stitching his right knee. He''s got other wounds that aren''t visible.
"I''m falling apart here," he says.
Cornelius, 54, is a Vietnam veteran. Two weeks ago, he and his wife were homeless.
"We got evicted," he says. "We didn''t have any place to go... Our status changed in a hurry. We went from being a stable family to a homeless family."
Cornelius went to a veterans outreach center in Marina and got on a housing list. Today, he and his wife live amid a growing community of formerly homeless veterans in rehabilitated housing in Fort Ord''s Patton Park.
Marcus Hatcher walks over to the grill to talk to Cornelius, and teases him that he''s been slipping barbecue sauce to Hatcher''s kids. Hatcher, who trained soldiers at Fort Ord back when he was in the Army, bums a smoke off Cornelius, who passed through Fort Ord on his way to and from Vietnam.
Soon Bill Hoehn walks up. He was an artilleryman stationed at Fort Ord, and now lives across he street. He and his wife and kids had been homeless. "There were four of us in a one bedroom hotel room for a year," he says.
The veterans are surprised and thankful to at least be able to live on the old fort again.
"I never thought I would be here," Hatcher says.
"Me neither," says Hoehn.
Cornelius is grateful. "This place over here is an absolute godsend to us," he says, keeping his eye on the chicken.
After nearly five years of wrestling a pathologically complex system of funding and regulation, the Veterans Transition Center (VTC) has just resettled the first of what they hope will be about 58 veterans and their families. The project is called the Coming Home Program. The vets have taken part of a small cul-de-sac surrounded by 40-year-old single-story duplex houses and made it into a neighborhood.
Once the 20 units spread among 10 buildings are filled, the VTC will begin a second phase on the next stretch of now-shuttered homes on Hayes Circle.
Making all those houses livable isn''t as easy as mowing the lawn and plugging in the fridge. There are matters of land conveyance, building codes, regulatory compliance, potential environmental trouble and scarce funding, which impede any effort to reuse the base.
Yet as of this week, five units on Hayes Circle are occupied. A total of 30 people are now living there-14 veterans and their wives and children.
John Newman (not his real name), a former counterintelligence specialist schooled in Korean and Thai at Monterey''s Defense Language Institute in the ''80s, is a 41-year-old carpenter who lives on Hayes Circle after sleeping in his truck and on friends'' couches for more than a year. Newman had been arrested for drunk driving and his license was suspended. He couldn''t drive so he couldn''t get to the job site. He was soon out of work and out of his apartment.
"Once you''re down it''s hard to get out," he says. "You can''t get a firm footing. It''s like climbing up the sand. It''s [the new housing] a way to find some solid footing and pull yourself out of poverty and homelessness."
Today Newman lives in the probationary apartment, where single male veterans are bunked two to a room. This housing is transitional, giving vets like Newman two years to find a more permanent home.
"It''s nice to know you''re not constantly looking for a place to stay at night," he says.
Nothing has been easy about providing housing for Newman and Cornelius and the others. At the center of the operation is a former Navy helicopter pilot named Ron Rygg, the executive director of the VTC. The Center''s offices are on the old base, in a converted headquarters known as Martinez Hall.
Since 1998, Rygg has had to finagle to find funding from multiple sources while complying with intertwined layers of bureaucracy. After finally getting the work started in September 2001, Rygg has put $2 million into these 20 housing units, which needed new roofs, garages, paint, structural work, landscaping and utility connections. It''s been a few very hard but now fruitful years.
"We are doing something. We are housing people. This is all very good news," he says. "What would be wonderful is if there was a single source of funding."
Sitting in Rygg''s office, program director Chuck Hackett agrees.
Hackett, a veteran like everyone else in the project, studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute. For 20 years he''s worked with homeless people. In this area, he says, 500 homeless vets have been contacted by the VTC, some 300 are logged in case files and 200 are on a list for housing.
"The need is great," he says. "We''re not going to run out of homeless veterans anytime soon."