New center for homeless veterans opens its doors in San Jose
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Tim Coslett tells people that he is part of the "new" homeless in America.
He had a good job. Owned his own home. But when a severe illness led to unemployment and contributed to excessive drinking, everything fell apart.
"My regular life, it all disappeared," said Coslett, 54, a Redwood City native. "I was never under a bridge, shooting up drugs. But now I'm in a place that gives you a real sense of dignity."
Coslett, who spent 16 years in the Marines and Navy, has lived since May in the Veterans Housing Facility in East San Jose. The 150-bed center, which had its ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday, even though it has been open several months, is a transitional housing complex where vets can live up to two years as they put their lives back together.
The opening comes at a time when veteran homelessness remains stubbornly high and a wave of new vets are rejoining civilian life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Veterans have been in many battles, but homelessness is one battle they shouldn't have to fight alone," said San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, an Air Force veteran. "You can't begin to deal with the mental and physical problems that some veterans have unless they have a place to live."
Irvin Goodwin, the CEO of the not-for-profit Veterans Housing Facility, knows firsthand. An Army veteran from Berkeley, Goodwin was homeless for three years in the mid-1990s. After receiving help from the Department of
Veterans Affairs, Goodwin dedicated his life to assisting others.
"If you're a veteran sleeping down at the river and you need a room, just come," Goodwin said. "That's the same for veterans who have seen their rent increase and are being forced out, or if they lose their jobs. You just have to be a veteran in a dire situation."
His organization had been housed on the VA Palo Alto Health Care System's Menlo Park campus, serving about 7,000 vets over 13 years. But their building was condemned for seismic deficiencies in late 2011.
After the organization spent 15 months homeless itself, the doors were opened to a six-acre, eight-building site that once was a retirement home for women teachers and had been unoccupied for six years. The property — featuring a kitchen, dining hall, pool and chapel — is owned by Barry Swenson Builder, and the Housing Industry Foundation supplied the furnishings. The VA pays the center for each veteran it houses.
Goodwin's group also put $230,000 into renovating the center, where vets live two to a room and receive three meals a day. There also is counseling for drug and alcohol addictions, treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental-health conditions as well as job training.
Mike Desanto, 29, of Castro Valley, is one of the 70 vets currently at the center and one day recently he was drug-tested. He passed. Desanto, who moved in last month after being released from jail for a residential burglary, is intent on using the facility as a way to get his life back on track.
"This is a springboard for me," said Desanto, who enlisted in the Marines after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and served two tours in Iraq. "I screwed up. I know that. But this place is helping me turn my life around. I'm working in the kitchen. I'm not lying, cheating or stealing. I'm rebuilding relationships with my family."
More than 60,000 veterans were homeless in January 2012 according to a national census. The good news is that number represented a 17.2 percent drop from 2009. And in the 11 Northern California counties serviced by the VA Palo Alto system, the homeless number decreased by more than 12 percent from the previous year.
Still, the local numbers are troubling. A just-released "point-in-time" census, conducted over a two-day period in January, found 718 veterans in Santa Clara County without permanent shelter — nearly 10 percent of the total homeless population.
"We have homelessness increasing in levels, across the board, that are very uncomfortable," said Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese, "But no veteran in this community should ever have to wait for housing or government services given the tremendous sacrifices that they've made on the behalf of all of us."
Coslett hopes to be here just six months.
"But for now, it feels like a real home," he said.