Hope for homeless vets Part II

The entrance to Camp Alma lies about an hour and half west of Cottage Grove in the middle of the forest. (Photo by Damien Sherwood/Cottage Grove Sentinel)

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a two-part series looking at the work Veterans Legacy is doing to help veterans out of homelessness. Names of the veterans residing at the camp have been changed to protect their identities.

May 12, 2022 — Getting Camp Alma’s residents reintegrated into society is a surgical task and one that may provide insights for other programs trying to address homelessness.

Dan Buckwald is executive director of the nonprofit Veterans Legacy, which operates the Camp Alma project.

“Ultimately, our goal is that these men transition into the community and are successful,” said Buckwald. “I think to be successful here, the veteran has to become independent. They've got to learn to rely on themselves and others. They have to have a level of confidence really instilled in them, problem-solving, knowing not everything's a freebie – I think they need to understand where they want to be, where they've been, and where they're at now.”

Some 17 veterans have come through the program since first launching in 2020. Currently, there are five residents living at the camp, which includes living quarters, a library, a large kitchen, exercise equipment and an entertainment room among its amenities on the 105-acre plot. The program survives on donations of dollars and materials.

Buckwald sums up the camp as a place to learn self-governance and how to take care of others – key ingredients to social reintegration.

While the camp provides a nurturing atmosphere for the vets, adapting to it can be a challenge for some.

“One of the most fleeting of emotions is gratefulness,” said Buckwald. “Because everybody's grateful to get here, you know, get out of the rain, the mud. And then it kind of fades.”

He recalled one resident who, by his third day, began demanding meals of only chicken breast.

“I'm not sure that you can be that picky when you have no income,” Buckwald said, but with the help of Goodwill, “he got supportive housing downtown, and then got a little better housing and now he's actively looking for work. And to me, that's a win. You know, he's he has come back into the system.”

A deep challenge in tackling homelessness in general, too, is the range of individual needs which to be addressed. Residents at Veterans Legacy, though, are finding themes that work. Community and responsibility are high among them.

Foundations for Reintegration

One of the camp’s residents, Wally (not his real name), served 32 years in the Army.

Previously a Dorena resident, his family situation disintegrated to the point where there was a violent domestic dispute which landed him in jail. Even after being released, a restraining order cut him off from his house and family – and thus any support system.

Without Camp Alma, “I wouldn't have a place to live,” he said. “I own a home. But I'm homeless.”

Wally expects he will have to stay at the camp for around a year to sort everything out. The camp provides him with not just a roof and bed, but also a support system he would have trouble finding otherwise.

“It’s great for the vets,” he said of the program. “It can get them off the street. The support here is phenomenal. … I'm living now with fellow veterans that have gone through some similar things as I. It just lets the veteran recenter himself on himself, if that makes sense. So you can gather your own thoughts in a group and then experience it with the other vets that are here.”

The process allows for individuals to proceed through their own journey of recovery with the added benefit of a tribe to rely on.

“Everyone that comes out here is in their personal time and space – at different level,” he said. “[Camp Alma] takes those individual levels and we find a common denominator in that. … We still work on individual issues, but we're learning to work as a group.”

Some of that work involves classes, but it also includes taking care of the facility by mowing, weed-eating, gardening and taking care of chickens.

The vets are even making baskets to sell to support the program.

“It's teaching responsibility,” Wally summed up.

On top of that responsibility, vets gain a sense of belonging and camaraderie.

“Because if one of us is having a bad day, the rest of us grab them by the bootstraps and pull them out of that domain. So that teaches teamwork,” Wally said.

In the case of Cottage Grove’s own attempt to address homelessness with a low-barrier shelter, Wally said, “I think that’s a start. It gives them a place to recover, get some counseling.”

Just haircuts and showers, he noted, can make a deep difference in someone’s life.

He acknowledged, though, that with drugs, “it is hard because, for one, they have to want to quit. Then two, it takes counseling,” he said. “And I didn't believe in counseling. You know, that was for sissies and everything like that. And now I can see a need for it.”

Establishing firm guidelines and procedures should be a part of it, said Wally, and participants need to have accountability.

“There has to be a structure or you're gonna have a hornet's nest,” he said.

Another of Camp Alma’s residents, Jeffrey (not his real name), had spent eight years in the Air Force. When he got out, he found the challenge of readjusting to civilian life too difficult and turned to alcohol to cope.

“You hit the civilian life and you don't have that structure that you had in the military,” he said. “All of a sudden, there's no rules. It can spiral real fast.”

Like Wally, Jeffrey’s mind changed around the importance of counseling and group sessions.

“The groups are a real benefit that I would have never searched out myself and just didn't think worked,” he said. “But then to be in here with people with the same problems … You get back into that mentality that you were in the military, you have that support system that you're missing in civilian life.”

Jeffrey believes the most important skill vets develop at the camp is introspection, opening the door to a genuine desire for self-betterment and working through issues.

“And you can't work on them if you don't know they're there,” he added. “It’s a matter of opening that door. It's so hard to be around somebody that doesn't have that same background and trying to open up around them is just so difficult. It’s just nice having people with the same type of issues.”

That sense of community has been a necessary element of coping for Jeffrey.

“One brick doesn't do anything but If you get a bunch of bricks together, you can make pretty strong wall,” he said.

Broadly, Jeffrey’s goal “just being able to cope with life”, which he acknowledges as a lot of work but completely tangible with the resources he has at Camp Alma.

“I mean, one night here, I can get more off my chest and learn more than I do in a month of a group with strangers,” he said. “It's just so helpful being able to work with each other.”

In effect, the tribe is enabling the individual’s potential to emerge.

Shelley Corteville, a board member of Veterans Legacy and caretaker at the facility is one of the three volunteers who helps maintain the site and sees the program as essential for veterans who are trying to better their lives.

“I think first and foremost, it's pretty quiet out here. People have an opportunity to just slow down,” she said. “It's hard being on the street. It’s very, very difficult being homeless. You don't ever get to relax. You're always worried. ‘Am I going to get rousted? Where am I sleeping? How am I going to get where am I going to use the bathroom?’”

While veterans can be stigmatized as tightly wound victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, Corteville points out that being on the street long enough can do that to any person, veteran or not. And echoing Jeffrey’s sentiment, she sees introspection as a profoundly useful tool vets can gain at Camp Alma to heal themselves.

“They have some expectations of working on their selves internally, not just externally to improve their situation,” she said. “And I think if people are willing – and it's not always easy; sometimes it can be painful – When people are willing to work on themselves internally, that's a game changer.”

More broadly, Corteville thinks a big key to launching any program to address homelessness effectively would involve wraparound services.       

She recalled an example of a generationally homeless youth she tried to help years ago when she worked with the Egan Warming Center. She and a pastor were eventually successful getting him housed.

“He could only take for one night. He did not know what to do,” she said. “It's still heartbreaking for me. He never had a chance at all in life … So even in ‘housing first’, there have to be some rules. You can't move people back into society without establishing some sort of rules.”

In that sense, a successful program will establish rules for how people should take care of themselves and act appropriately around others. This includes an ability to communicate well.

“People have to learn how to how to speak to each other in a manner that doesn't create more trauma for each other. And that doesn't magically happen,” she said. “I think it's possible to really help people and to get people off the streets that want to come off the streets, but I think it really takes an organization to look at all the hard questions and to be willing to go and do a lot of training themselves. Because without any of that, it just makes it more difficult.”

For his part, Buckwald feels decriminalization of drugs and taking “teeth” away from law enforcement may be a significant contributing factor to the entire problem, pointing out that actual arrest and being taken into the correctional system is how many addicts and drug abusers make first contact with the services they need to get clean.

“And then that’s compounded with the mental health part of this,” he added.

One key sticking point in Cottage Grove’s own debate around this issue has been the concern that a low-barrier shelter site would not provide the kind of management and oversight necessary to affect positive outcomes.

“Without the wraparound services, without peer mentors without some kind of accountability,” Buckwald said he feels such attempts would fail and are “putting a Band-Aid on something that needs an operation.”

The project at Camp Alma is trying to prove that not only are successful programs possible, but essential for people like Jeffrey, who sees the resource as a literal life saver.

“I'm so lucky that this is here,” he said. “Who knows, if this hadn't been here, where I'd be.”

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