by Maureen Hartmann
Alex McElree, founding director of Operation Dignity, an organization that provides emergency and transitional housing to homeless veterans in Oakland, is a tall, heavyset man with sandy hair. He speaks in simple, unadorned sentences, but his words and demeanor convey a personality full of strong emotion and action.
After completing three tours of duty in Vietnam, McElree returned home, only to find himself inducted into another army, joining the countless, nameless ranks of homeless veterans living on the streets of American cities. McElree’s experiences led him to found Operation Dignity.
He says, “What happened to me was, because of drinking and using drugs after returning from Vietnam in 1969, I held jobs, lost jobs. Eventually I got married; my wife decided to leave. I lost my job and I had a nervous breakdown in 1991. While I was being treated for my stress condition by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, I found out how many veterans were homeless – 32 percent of all single homeless people are veterans.
“While I was being treated, I found a friendly landlord who rented to me a house cheaply and I went out and found some beds and mattresses, and took in homeless veterans during that time of my own recovery. I think it helped me more than it helped them. Along the way, I hoped it helped them.
“The founding of the organization was difficult because the system at the time in Alameda County was and is very hard to break into. If we didn’t have money, they were not going to help us. For two to three years, I did it with my own money, my Social Security. Then in 1994, I was able to get a grant from VA with a lot of people thinking I was not going to be able to do it. Julie Angelone, the director of the Veterans’ Grant and Perdiem Program in San Francisco, which has in the meantime spread to Oakland, helped me start Operation Dignity. The VA staff helped me write the grant application.”
One of McElree’s first helpers was Bill Kennedy, a veteran like himself. McElree says that a number of veterans stayed on after being helped to recovery, to become full-time volunteer staff in the outfit.
Because of Kennedy’s alcoholism and addiction, he had come to the end of indoor places to stay in, including shelters and detox centers. Even Kennedy’s mother had moved him out after a stay with her.
He finally appeared one morning on McElree’s doorstep. From then on, he has remained clean and sober. Kennedy is now a building inspector. He worked for McElree as his “second-in-command” originally. As McElree opened new sites for veterans, he would direct them.
Another story, this time of a woman veteran who recovered from her war wounds with Operation Dignity’s aid and helps others through example, is very touching and inspiring. McElree met her when she was staying with her two children in a shelter that he directed.
She moved into the transitional housing that he ran, and stayed the limit set by the Veterans’ Affairs Grant and Perdiem Program, two years. The housing staff helped her get a job.
“She finally got a permanent place to live,” says McElree. “Since then she’s bought her own home. She now works for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. She’s on my board of directors. She comes and shares with women veterans what happened to her, so they know there’s some hope for them.”
Clients usually spend 21 days in emergency housing. Recently, there has been no emergency housing program except for “some motel vouchers, so that we can put a family, or someone that’s medically frail, in a motel,” says McElree. “At this time I do not offer an emergency shelter, not that I wouldn’t like to. The city doesn’t have one that’s open year round.”
If everything works out, the homeless veterans then move into transitional housing. “At the end of the two years, our goal is to have them in permanent housing – have them working or on Social Security, or whatever they need to be on, so that they can have enough money to live and be self-sufficient.”
It is necessary to have some “good neighbor” rules due to the close community living, such as not playing music too loudly. McElree adds, “No fighting, no physical violence; don’t disrupt the program for others…”
Women are housed apart from men, so that they don’t have to mix with the men if they don’t want to, some having suffered from sexual trauma in the armed forces. “They can get the therapy they need from the VA, or from a battered women’s center,” McElree notes. “They do come back with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but more of them come back with sexual trauma. The government tries to hide that, but it’s a pretty bad thing in the military.”
The actual process of screening clients for services is fairly simple. “They have to prove that they are veterans,” he says. “They have to apply for a Social Security card, they have to get a picture ID. They have to get a tuberculosis test. They can’t have been discharged from the armed forces dishonorably. And then if they meet the requirements, they’re in the program. I can bring someone into my housing within one hour.”
For the future, he envisions “watching Operation Dignity grow to serve veterans and the homeless community in Alameda County.” The outfit is in the process of “partnering with Abode in Fremont and Lifelong Medical Care here in Oakland, to do a countywide family program,” he says. “Lifelong gets our people medical care really quick.” Dental care can be provided for all veterans. Even non-veterans receive dental work through the organization.
Operation Dignity’s transitional housing program collaborates with Swords To Plowshares’ Oakland employment and training unit. Transitional housing provides a temporary home for veterans out of which they can conduct a job search and obtain job readiness.
“It is very difficult to do a job search or training while you are living on the streets,” says Kenneth Crawford, who directs the Oakland unit of Swords to Plowshares employment and training program.
“I know that because I lived on the streets for two years. It’s not easy to do these things, if you don’t have a place to lay your head at night, take a shower, and have clean clothes. These things are important to an employer to hire you.”
Approximately 60 percent of veterans who come to the Swords To Plowshares Oakland unit are classified as homeless, whether they live on the street, in shelters or in transitional housing.
One veteran who came in off the streets was referred to the vocational rehabilitation counselor who deals with issues of mental illness. The counselor felt he should seek psychological help from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. He went to the VA and was stabilized, and then returned to Swords to Plowshares.
“He wanted to be a Class A truck driver;” Crawford says. “We paid for his training. He successfully completed that training, got a Class A driver’s license with full endorsements and, as we speak, is probably somewhere in Georgia, driving an 18-wheel truck, making a very decent, livable wage.”
Job readiness is a major issue for many veterans. They must have been clean and sober for 60 days before they start the job programs at Swords to Plowshares. If they haven’t been clean and sober for that length of time, they are referred to the VA and possibly Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Job readiness also includes punctuality, dependability, and performing well on the job. These are qualities covered by their case managers.
“We have already screened them and gone over these things with them, so that by the time they get to an interview, we know that they’re able to be on time and able to perform,” says Crawford. “If they do not have everything we need, we refer them to other organizations, for what they need, whether it be expungement of criminal records, legal issues such as disability upgrades, compensation plans, discharge upgrades, DMV issues.”
Veterans who received a bad conduct discharge have to be served out of the San Francisco office.
Veterans write resumes and cover letters with the help of the staff. They are supplied with interview clothing, and haircuts if necessary. Before they get the first paycheck, they are given a Safeway gift card so they can get their lunches at work. After the first paycheck, they become self-sustaining.
Swords to Plowshares’ employment program is now a national model. Crawford says: “I recently attended a conference in Washington, D.C., of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. I and my director presented to a group of organizations, and what we talked about is how we serve our veterans, how we set up our program for the different career tracks, like the Class A, the security guards, the green industry.
“We go to the employers and say, ‘What do you need from your employees?’ Get that piece in, and it’s a seamless transition from training to hire. So we shared that with other organizations to better their chances with various grants that are out there. Although we are San Francisco-based, we are looked at by a large group of organizations across the U.S. as having been successful.”
Veterans helping veterans is the vision of both Crawford and McElree, and the organizations they represent. Crawford shares his vision for the future of the Swords to Plowshares Employment training unit in Oakland.
“We hope to expand and add more services,” he says, “which we are looking at now, to continue to build more relations here in the East Bay, link up with more referral agencies, expand our housing outreach, as well as employer outreach. We are very much looking for employers that are interested in hiring veterans. All we’re asking for is opportunity for our veterans.
“My vision is to expand and grow with the hope that we can end homelessness for veterans soon. Just in my vision, my goal would be to provide more legal services, more health services. The picture is of adding more agencies into our collaboration, getting out into the community, spreading the word more, working with more transitional housing.”
The work will continue as veterans keep returning to their communities from overseas wars, only to end up homeless.
“There are a lot more veterans out there.” Crawford says. “My hope is to be able to drive around Alameda County and not see veterans homeless. We see about 800 veterans over a year’s time. I would expect that number to increase to over 1000 by this time next year.”