EVERYDAY HEROES IN COMPTON: 18TH HOMELESS VETERANS STAND DOWN RECAP
Story and Photographs by Ursula Vari
© 2021 All Right by Ursula Vari
The sun rains his golden California rays as I make my way down N. Bullis Road in the heart of Compton. Behind the Housing Authority, in the sizable parking lot, the 18th Homeless Veterans Stand Down Event is in full swing. The Compton Chamber of Commerce, in association with Volunteers of America Los Angeles brought the event back to life this year, understanding all too well the dire need to inform and connect veterans with medical, legal and housing services. In LA County, out of the 66,000 unhoused individuals many are vets, who often don’t know where to turn to receive help and what benefits they are eligible to receive. I leave my car behind and walk past a myriad of booths with mental health and housing assistance, booths with clothing, sleeping bags and backpack giveaways and bright-eyed participants eager to help veterans. Although the number of attendees has decreased this year due to the pandemic, the desire to help those in need has grown exponentially.
Volunteers of America Los Angeles runs 20+ programs one of which is Veteran Peers Access Network (VPAN). As I browse the rows, and an old friend from the courts, Robin Danar, introduces me to Christina Rheingold, Program Manager and passionate advocate at VPAN , she explains to me that the organization’s goal is to link all veterans regardless of their discharge status with services and earned benefits. They even extend their assistance to military family members.
A few booths down from VPAN’s display, I find the soft-spoken Esteban “Steve” H. Navarro, 66, from Veterans of Foreign Wars. Esteban served in the army for 4 years. He was part of the group that was picking up evacuees from Vietnam in 1975. His fellow vet comrade, Jacob, 33, served in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province between 2010-2011 with the 101st division and was also stationed in Korea. Jacob was honorably discharged after serving for 8 years . After leaving the army he asked for assistance to help find housing. He described the process as arduous and difficult as his claim kept bouncing back for close to 3 years.
I approach Mike Laughlin, also from Veterans of Foreign Wars, with my eager questions. He is a Navy veteran who served 4 years on active duty and 4 years as a reservist. He recalls his time in Vietnam on the USS Alamo LSD 33 dock landing ship as he gazes into the distance. I ask him what he thinks is missing in the system, why we continue seeing the growing number of homeless individuals around the county. “We are missing the empathy from politicians, they need to take the money they are wasting and put it towards services, and create small villages with tiny homes, and they need to listen to the homeless” I couldn’t agree with him more. I spent a part of my 2020 around Skid Row helping and talking to the unhoused, only to learn that many of them don’t want to be crammed into mega complexes with several beds in one room. A dignified single bed occupancy dwelling is what they all dream of and tiny houses are perfect and inexpensive solutions to the growing number of unhoused individuals. Mike and I both agreed that city and state officials need to speak to the unhoused about their needs instead of crafting solutions that often don’t work from their sterile offices. Mike and I speak the same language and I look at him and his crew at Veterans of Foreign Wars as living legends.
I move over to the next row to watch the youth, Suavius, 11, and Marcius, 8, making basket after basket at the Hoop Bus that just pulled up to support the veterans. This magic of a bus continues to bring people together and has traveled thousands of miles to empower communities. It doesn’t take long and the bus gets busy with curious onlookers and brave souls taking on the basket at the front and the back of this wunder wagon. Then come members of the Compton Kids Club, three young ladies representing the youth movement. They shoot layups in their crocks at the front of the bus, while in the back Ryan, a young boy with his surfer friend dribble the morning away.
Within a few short minutes, the Hoop Bus is hopping outside and inside, where members of the United States. Cadet Corps (USCC) youth program marvel at the wall art of the shrine-like roof of the bus. The girls, Janae, 11, and Brianna, 11, proudly answer my question about what they learned at USCC. “Life skills, loyalty, respect, survival skills, honor and so much more” I thank the girls and exit the bus with a smile witnessing none other than Esteban, the revered Chaplain from Veterans of Foreign Wars shooting hoops with Suavius, Marcius and Carr’lie, 9, a vivacious young lady from Compton. Esteban’s garrison cap remains unmoved as he gets bucket after bucket. It’s a few days before Christmas, and the Hoop Bus is decked out with festive regalia and each time the boys and Esteban throw the ball into the hoop the whole bus vibrates with the sound of jingle bells decorating the metal rims. I am told that Buddha, aka Larry Boyd, the day’s Hoop Bus celebrity guest is just a few minutes away. He is a veteran himself, who by now made a good name for himself in the basketball circles.
So, I continue my wonderings and I make my way to the second row of booths to witness a miracle. Chris Zamor, 46, who before going through the Veterans Transitional Program (VTP) was homeless for two years, sleeping on a bench in front of the DMV in Inglewood. Eventually, he got connected with the VTP program that allowed him to save up some money and to move into Section 8, permanent housing via the VASH program. The program - in addition to permanent housing assistance for chronically homeless veterans- provides long–term case management and clinical and supportive services.
Once in permanent housing, Chris re-enrolled in school. After graduating from UCLA, he went to USC and eventually graduated with a Master’s in Teaching. After 6 years of teaching History, he became a case manager at the very organization that gave him a chance and helped him transition from living on the streets into a life filled with possibilities. I sit there teary eyed as I listen to Chris’ story as Trevor Duberry, Program Manager for Veteran’s Services at SRO Housing explains the myriad of short-term and permanent programs they offer not only to veterans but to all people experiencing homelessness. I watch him jump up and rush to assist a visitor at the booth who came to inquire about housing. You can tell that Duberry loves his job and to be of service to those in dire need.
I look across to watch Buddha in deep conversation with Savion, 21, who is from Moreno Valley and was in the Army for 1 year. He came to the event to see what benefits he was eligible for. I watch Buddha show him a warm-up drill, then the two begin to rattle the jingle bells with each bucket. They have an unspoken bond, the reverence of one vet to another. Buddha, before he became well-known in the Semi-Pro, ABA, Pro- Am Leagues and as of late a highly skilled and revered champion in the Venice Basketball League, he served in the Air Force for several years. He was stationed in Alaska, Clovis, NM and Korea and deployed twice, to Kuwait and to the Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates. He was granted an honorable discharge and after leaving the Air Force he too had to face the challenges of being homeless, while living out of his car, an everyday reality for many vets.
I watch Buddha and Savion’s interplay and witness a sort of mentorship springing from their bond. I sit on the asphalt taking my photos and I get approached by the gentle soul of Gregory Nelson, 69. He has been attending the Homeless Veterans Stand Down Event the past few years after learning about them from Upward Bound, a veterans’ organization. He enjoys visiting each booth and tells me that the services offered are excellent. There’s so much light and joy emanating from his eyes, mixed with a hint of nostalgia as he recounts his years of service in the Army from 1973 to 1977, his years in the Panama Canal, then in Fort Stewart and in Fort Ord, California. He served in the National Guard and the Army Reserve for 28 years then retired from the military. Gregory’s whole life has been about service. After he got out of active duty, he reenrolled in Compton College and eventually started working for the Compton Post Office as a mailman for 39 years. His hematite eyes glisten in the sun as he points to Carr’lie. “That’s my niece” he says, and somehow I know that he is her guardian. Gregory tells me that Carr’lie hasn’t seen her father in years and that her mom struggles with addiction. I realize that in Gregory, I am talking to a hero who deserves a medal of honor for being an extraordinary human.
There are a lot of exceptional people living in Compton many of them converging right here where we are, adjacent to the Hoop Bus where Buddha now strikes a pose with Carr’lie, as Savion continues “jinglijng” the bus with each bucket.
By early afternoon the crowd subsides with only a handful of vets sitting at a few booths receiving their last bits of information that will change and save their lives. Permanent housing is the greatest gift one can receive, the stability and community support that comes with it can and will change lives. Chris Zamor is one of the many success stories from the Veterans Transitional Program (VTP) and he is paying it forward inspiring other veterans to follow in his footsteps. I say goodbye to him and the rest of the crew. On my way out, Mike Laughlin from Veterans of Foreign Wars hands me his card. I look at the back of the card and my eyes well with tears as I read the Veteran’s Creed:
“I Am A Veteran. I Have Seen And Done Things You May Not Understand. I Will Never Accept Defeat. I Will Never Quit And I Will Never Leave A Fallen Brother Or Sister. If They Are Hurt, I Will Carry Them. If I Can’t Carry Them, I Will Drag Them. I Will Help Them Face Their Enemies, To Include The Demons Within. They Are My Brothers and Sisters”
Story and Photographs by Ursula Vari
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List of Organizations Mentioned who are helping veterans and the unhoused: