Hope for homeless vets: Part I

Serene, forested hills set the backdrop of Camp Alma, a site dedicated to healing and improving the lives of homeless veterans.

Veterans Legacy is continuing its work to reintegrate homeless veterans into society

While Cottage Grove continues to debate how it might address homelessness, Dan Buckwald is focusing his energy on helping a particular subset of that population: veterans.

About an hour-and-a-half drive west of Cottage Grove, Camp Alma is home to a project by Veterans Legacy, a nonprofit formed in 2016 with a mission to provide veterans a safe, supportive environment for healing and eventual reintegration into their communities.

The 105-acre plot of land features a complex consisting of dormitories, a kitchen and dining area, a lounge, gym, a library and laundry facilities amid a serene, forest setting. Though staffed by just three volunteers, the camp offers the potential for skills training in gardening, food preparation, food preservation, construction, maintenance, basic financial management and job interviewing.

In setting veterans up for post-camp reintegration, Veterans Legacy aims to help residents with a range of other skills including preparation for employment, job training, forming business plans and planning higher education.

Currently there are five veterans living at the camp.

“These guys out here right now are doing a fantastic job,” said Buckwald, who is executive director of Veterans Legacy. “I have been so pleased with their production and how they’re getting along.”

Buckwald has his own serendipitous history with Camp Alma.

The site first began operating in 1990 under the auspices of the Lane County Sheriff’s Office and, besides a two-year shutdown from 1995 to 1997, the camp provided a rural work setting for county inmates until 2008.

At its peak occupancy, the work camp was a 100-inmate operation filled with inmates whose crimes were relatively minor.

Buckwald, originally from Mapleton, returned to Lane County in 1988 from a stint with the Air Force and was hard-pressed to find a meaningful direction in his life. After working his way through some basic labor jobs, Buckwald found employment with the sheriff’s office, working in corrections.

In 1991, Buckwald came to Camp Alma, which was known as the Sheriff’s Office Forest Work Camp at the time. He soon learned that inmates coming through the camp had talents and skills worth cultivating.

In assigning inmates to work he thought would fit them, Buckwald found that they would often put in 10 or 12 hours a day. 

The camp was known to provide community benefits as well. Inmates even provided desserts for the Whiteaker Free Community Thanksgiving Day Dinner, an annual neighborhood feed in Eugene for those in need.

In approaching the issues of the men remanded at the camp, Buckwald believed strongly in giving second chances and positioning people so that they might right themselves. His 13 years spent at the camp taught him that inmates were capable of applying talents and skills given the proper environment and motivation.

So, just as it did in its previous incarnation, Buckwald feels the camp today provides an opportunity for many to turn their lives around.

After securing a deal with the county to purchase the plot of land, Veterans Legacy began putting its vision to work in 2020, just as COVID-19-related restrictions began sweeping the country.

As Buckwald is fond of saying, “When the world shut down, we opened up.”

Around 17 people have come through the program to date, but the camp temporarily shut down last year due to COVID and financial burdens. It opened up again in full early this year.

To this day, though, the operation is still running completely on donations. Only three volunteers, including Buckwald, maintain the camp and rely partially on the camp’s residents for general upkeep.

“The only paid staff we have out here is a peer mentor, who has been through veterans court, who is a combat veteran that had his own PTSD issues, had his own self medicating issues with the veterans court, and he now works for us and for veterans court as a mentor,” said Buckwald.

Independence and Interdependence

With minimal staff, Buckwald and the volunteers need to work smart. Part of their approach has been re-establishing self-reliance in the vets who come through and making sure they start sketching out a long-term strategy.

“What I’ve learned in dealing with the homeless, these guys that I’ve worked with, they really live in the next four hours. ‘Where’s my next meal? Where’s my next cigarette? Who’s gonna steal my stuff if I leave?’ That type of thing,” he explained. “And so, when we bring folks out here, the very first thing I ask them is, ‘What’s your exit strategy? Do you need housing? Employment? Is it entrepreneurial? Is it educational? What is it that you need that we’ll start working on?’”

Teaching this kind of long-term planning, Buckwald said, is like helping someone develop a new “muscle memory”. Forming new habits and breaking old ones is a key part of the process.

“We don’t coddle by any means,” Buckwald explained. “I’ve had multiple uncomfortable conversations of ‘Hey, in the real world, we don’t do this. And this is an expectation while you’re here.’ And so, it’s also being able to take constructive criticism.”

One of those “real-world” skills is something easily taken for granted — trust.

At Camp Alma, veterans get to experience and remember what it’s like to connect with people, a trait which can be lost to the “survival mode” of someone living on the streets. On top of this trust, residents learn conflict resolution.

“Its structure. Its coping skills, de-escalation and learning that we have to be able to agree to disagree,” Buckwald said. “With a lot of them, you’re building up self-ego. I mean, how can you like others if you don’t like yourself?”

There is also an expectation of duty at the camp. Buckwald has a list of projects he would like to see done by residents each week, including cleaning, general maintenance and lawn care.

There is no rent charge at the camp, but residents are expected to provide their own food and, in that, find pathways toward community-building by planning meals as a group.

Getting outside of the mindset of fast food or convenience store sustenance by educating residents about nutrition is also an important element of that training. With this focus on the importance of food, each resident is required to get a food handlers card.

And soon, the current residents will be trained in First Aid and CPR.

Day-to-day, the vets are also expected to maintain their personal hygiene and keep their living quarters clean.

This combination of individual duties and social interaction instill not only a sense of self-governance, but an interdependence and camaraderie among the veterans that may have been lost to them, all of which are skills Veterans Legacy staff hope to see extend into each person’s reintegration journey.

Besides these skills, though, many who have come through the camp need to be taught about personal finance, budgeting and how to get a checking account — knowledge which is indispensable for any stable lifestyle.

The site is far from the prison environment it used to be, too. Camp Alma’s current group of five residents is constantly coming and going from the camp, either for work or treatment in Eugene.

“And we’re just here to help manage that,” said Buckwald.

In that, there are different degrees of flexibility and rigidity Veterans Legacy employs.

“We do take UAs (urine analysis),” Buckwald said. “We have a breathalyzer out here, too.”

Driving back to the camp drunk, for example, would be grounds for kicking someone out of the program.

“But it’s not always three strikes and you’re out,” he said. “We look to the person individually. In the past, we’ve had flexibility come back to bite us and, you know, not being funded, you want to have guys out here that are helping participate.”

Veterans Legacy also won’t take any arsonists (for insurance reasons) or sex offenders (to accommodate the eventual inclusion of female veterans).

Essentially, the nonprofit is looking to find willing participants who will have “skin in the game,” said Buckwald, who are interested in developing community as well as themselves. Veterans should leave the camp with a desire to pay it forward and help others find ways to lift themselves up.

“I’ve had a lot of vets ask me, ‘Well, what are you gonna do for me?’” recalled Buckwald. “Well, I’m not doing anything for you. What do you want to do for yourself? Because I’ll walk beside you and walk behind you, but I’m not leading you. This is your journey, not mine.”

In this, he sees living at the camp as involving a “payback” which includes individuals taking ownership of their own lives.

“And then for those that left on good terms, they want to come back,” Buckwald said. “They want to continue to meet the new guys that are here and be a part of what they learned out here.”

Of course, there are always bad eggs, too.

“I had one guy who was breaking all kinds of curfews and rules,” recalled Buckwald. “And we had that heart-to-heart of, ‘I’ve got to ask you: If at age 56 this is where you thought you’d be, then congratulations, you’ve made it. But if it’s not, maybe it’s time to actually shut up, sit back and listen to other people.’ You know, let’s just say like it is.”

Buckwald acknowledges there is a deep complexity to the problems each person faces.

“Obviously, you can’t save everybody,” he said. “I mean, you just can’t. There’s those that are too far gone. And I don’t know what the answer is. Then there are those that need a hand up, not a handout. And I think that’s what we’re doing here, is we’re giving that hand up. We’re very upfront about expectations, what we expect from you, but what you can expect from us as well.”

Veterans Legacy often works with Veterans Court to find potential residents, but Buckwald admits that finding who might be the best candidate for the camp is not always obvious considering the range of issues each individual homeless vet faces.

He recalled one case in which a drug addict at the camp could not stay sober and so had to be turned away. The man bounced between different services in different cities and states, unable to find stability.

“It’s tough. He’d come back here in a heartbeat. But I wouldn’t bring him back here unless I had full staffing so he could be monitored,” Buckwald said.

While a case manager may be offering their services to the camp soon, a significant increase in staffing would be necessary to handle cases such as the above.

For now, Veterans Legacy relies on partnerships with groups like EasterSeals, St. Vincent DePaul or Veterans Treatment Court to direct its camp residents toward their next steps.

Part II of this series will look at individual cases at Camp Alma and examine some challenges and possible solutions in addressing homelessness through the project.

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