Plastered in bold letters on the wall of the welcome center of the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs (VA) complex -- a sprawling campus just off U.S. Highway 101 -- the message is clear: "I create what happens to me."
It's one of the creeds of the VA's Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program (HVRP), a six-month program that provides housing, support and training for veterans seeking shelter and employment. The motto tells veterans struggling to get back on their feet that they can turn their lives around if they change their mindset.
The rehabilitation program is rolled out at VA centers throughout the nation and has found success in Menlo Park. That branch, run by the VA Palo Alto Health Care System, has served more than 3,000 veterans in its program's 20-plus years.
The need is great: Santa Clara County has the highest number of homeless veterans in the nation, Col. Nicole Malachowski told the Weekly last year; a 2013 county study put the number at 718. (In contrast, San Mateo County, which is roughly half the size of Santa Clara County, has 136 homeless veterans, according to the county human services agency's 2016 homeless Point-in-Time count.)
Last October, Palo Alto then-Mayor Karen Holman signed the White House Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, an initiative brought forth by First Lady Michelle Obama and Second Lady Jill Biden to secure commitments and action from cities. Earlier this year, the City of Palo Alto introduced the Landlord Incentive Program, which rewards landlords for renting to homeless veterans.
But the VA's rehabilitation program remains one of the more steadfast methods to help homeless veterans start afresh.
Just ask Shauntrel Brown. He knows what the program's self-responsibility creed means because he's lived it. Growing up with a mother who used crack cocaine and a father who was "off doing his own thing," Brown spent his childhood in foster homes, joining gangs, drinking and smoking. He joined the military in 2000, but only because he "figured that was the right thing to do."
Back from deployment in 2004, Brown said, he didn't know how to handle himself. He continued to drink and wound up in prison after racking up five DUI convictions.
During one of those prison stays, a VA outreach worker visited him and told him about the rehabilitation program. After getting out of jail, he was hesitant to join the program but eventually made a conscious decision to start improving his life.
"Most of my life I had to learn things and deal with things on my own," Brown said, candidly. "I only knew one way to deal with them, and I said, 'This way ain't working because I'm finding myself in jail.'"
While he dealt with his problems before by drinking, Brown quickly discovered a practice at the program that he came to describe as "emotions surfing."
"The feelings and emotions are really intense right at that moment, but as soon as you ride it out, you calm down, you find somebody to talk to," he said.
This strategy goes hand-in-hand with the program's goal of teaching veterans to not let their emotions get the best of them.
Bob Whelan, a VA social worker, describes the program as a community of rehabilitating veterans, all pushing each other to reach the same goal.
"Through the therapeutic community treatment, they get lots of practice because they all live together for months," Whelan said. "You're constantly interacting with people who are learning the same skills as you, and you're practicing: 'How do I interact better with people? How do I deal with when I get angry or irritated or down? How do I work with people to problem-solve?'"
In the field of psychology, the term is "cognitive behavior therapy," a method by which one's thinking is adjusted in order to change feeling and behavior. For veterans who have undergone traumatic events in combat and have other struggles in life, this teaching can be especially applicable.
"If you're walking around and thinking, 'The world's all wrong, and I'm right,' your emotions are going to be angry, and you're going to behave aggressively," Whelan said.
Tim Healy knows that feeling. The former U.S. Navy rescue swimmer served from 1986 to 1990 and was stationed in Pensacola, Florida, and Alameda, California. For close to 30 years after leaving the military, Healy used drugs and alcohol to cope with his problems.
"I was either high or angry, and sometimes they could be done at the same time," he said.
Following numerous incarcerations, Healy was eventually court-ordered to attend the program.
"I came in here and told them, 'Put me on the couch, tell me what's wrong with me and fix me,'" he said. "They instructed me (that) that's not how the program works."
Instead, Healy was embarking on a meticulous process, one that first sought to normalize his troubled life and then required him to seek opportunities to re-start.
Finding vets who are ready
The Homeless Veterans Rehabilitation Program was launched in 1987, authorized under the federal Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. It received bipartisan support in Congress as advocates around the country demanded a national response to an increase in homelessness, according to the National Coalition of the Homeless.
It began with many of the same goals it has now, including the use of peer-to-peer interaction to help vets navigate the problems that led to homelessness in the first place. Of those the Menlo Park center has served, most have had problems with drugs or alcohol and have been incarcerated, according to Whelan.
The program is not for everyone; its website states that admission to the domiciliary requires that the veteran be "capable of self-care, not in need of a higher level of care; motivated and able to actively participate in intensive treatment; and homeless or at risk of being homeless."
And not all who are selected to participate finish the program. David Grillo, the domiciliary outreach program coordinator, said that a "relatively small percentage are not going to make it all the way through." He noted that six months is "significantly longer" than similar programs' durations of between one and three months.
"People become ready to change their lives at different points, at different phases," Grillo said.
Still even those who drop out may have benefited from their participation, he said.
"If a veteran engages in treatment and learn some new skills ... all of those skills are going to help them in the future. Even if they have a relapse, it's not considered a failure" Grillo said.
To find participants who will be successful, the VA staff seeks them out.
"We have teams of people who go into jails, state and federal prisons and meet with veterans who are preparing to be released," Grillo said. "A lot of times we can convince a veteran to go straight from incarceration to ... the program here. A lot of times we're working with judges and other folks in the justice system to modify the sentence of the veteran, to get them into this level of treatment."
Though the Menlo Park center has 70 beds, they're not all filled at all times, according to Grillo.
Upwards of 20 staff help run the program, which includes professional staff ranging from licensed social workers to peer-support specialists. The program typically employs veterans themselves, many of whom have been through rehabilitation, in these positions.
The program is funded through the VA Palo Alto's Health Care System's annual operating budget and does not utilize any special grant funding, according to Grillo.
Taking a risk
At first, veterans are unsure of how to feel about being placed in a rehab program and having to spend time with others in the same situation, Healy said.
His first experience was going out for dinner with five other veterans and thinking it was just a "pre-game" to a night out partying.
"And then I had to realize, 'No, this is fun,'" he said. "I realized that communicating with other people was something I hadn't learned how to do in my life. I learned that is the enjoyment. You don't have to go out and start drinking and using dope to have fun."
The first couple of months are spent building up veterans' confidence with therapeutic classes and social activities. According to Whelan, without the crutch of drugs or alcohol, this can be difficult.
"It can be pretty intense because if you're working on stuff and addiction's been your thing, here you're not able to go to drugs and alcohol," he said. "When things get intense, you're forced to face it and deal with the emotions that come up and have the people around you that you should be using for support."
The program preaches the five "P's": problem solving, people, personal responsibility, practice and play -- the last one being the most important because participants learn to have fun without turning to drugs or alcohol.
Planned social activities, from alumni reunions to dinners, give veterans a chance to let loose. Other activities include rock climbing, rowing and horseback riding -- clean and sober recreation specifically picked to foster trust and build relationships and confidence among veterans.
Brown's favorite activity is rowing.
"It's about trusting your team," he said. "You've got to trust yourself. Some people got to get over the fear of being out in the water. You can't be (afraid of) going in and trying to row in the water."
He continued: "Each activity is a learning experience. Most of the things in here is not about, 'Just go do this.' It's all about therapy. It's all learning experience, interacting with each other."
Additionally, each veteran is given a job as part of his or her therapy, which can range from being the "joke of the day" officer to the resident-community coordinator. Brown is the cleanup officer, which he said helps him deal with his issue of self-doubt.
"With my job, I have to hold other people accountable, and I have to trust with my decisions," he said. "Me having a job helps me out with my authority because I'm able to assert myself more. I have to be able to active listen (to) another person, or understand if another person's having a bad day: How do I approach or how do I communicate with this person so I don't blow it more out of proportion? I understand they have feelings just as well as I do."
"Active listening" is another key concept the veterans learn. It stresses stopping to listen and making sure that one understands and grasps the other end of a conversation before responding.
After veterans have warmed up to the program, the last few months are spent aiding them in finding homes and jobs. Grillo said some veterans leave the program early once they've found meaningful work.
For housing, veterans receive vouchers from the VA Supportive Housing program and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Sometimes, veterans choose to share an apartment to keep their support system in place.
"'If I go into a place and I close the door and it's just mine, am I going to relapse?'" Whelan said, describing what program participants think. "'Am I going to show up for work? I'd rather have my buddies with me and keep ourselves accountable.'"
Veterans can sign up for the program by dialing an 800-number and speaking directly with a veteran who has graduated. Healy, who now works in outreach, deals directly with potential program participants, going to soup kitchens and encampments to talk to homeless veterans.
"Because of my background, I can relate with them very well," he said. "I look at them and say, 'I've been where you've been.' Because of my relating with them, I think it helps brings people into the program. It's very therapeutic to see somebody get help who might've been in the same place I was."
Healy has come across homeless veterans who are naturally always on guard, suspicious of everyone, whether they are in prison, an encampment or someone else's garage. They have the "fight or flight" instinct that comes with struggling to just get by.
"When you come into this building, it might take you a day or two to realize it's a safe environment," Healy said. "The (biggest) priority they have here ... is that it stays that way. It's like having a hotel room. It's not under a bush or on the floor in a shelter. It gives somebody a chance to rest their brain and work on themselves versus just trying to survive."
The amenities are so enticing, according to Healy, that when he tells veterans on the streets about them, some respond with expletives. The lobby of the housing unit is spacious, filled with couches used for meetings, a Foosball table and a patio. A large kitchen sits to the right, and farther down the hall are a fitness room and a music room, where some veterans have picked up instruments and spontaneously formed a band. Across the street is a two-lane bowling alley.
Each of the 70 rooms, no bigger than a typical college dorm, is shared by two people. For homeless veterans who have made do with sidewalks and encampments for years, just having a clean, safe environment in which to live is sufficient.
That, and the unconditional support that comes with being around other veterans. As Brown noted, "You can't be out and sad in here."
Healy agreed: "Veterans have a tendency to help each other. We don't overlook each other. The term 'no man left behind' -- you see somebody struggling, you don't just walk away from them like you would out in the streets."
According to Healy, veterans remind each other to look inwardly instead of blaming their problems on others.
"It's tough love when you're feeling terrible about a situation and another vet can come up to you who's a peer and equal with you and say, 'I create what happens to me,'" Healy said.
He added that, though the staff facilitates the mindset, it's the veterans who enforce it.
"It's not 'attack therapy' in any way, shape or form," he said. "It's rather gentle. The residents are probably harsher on each other or hold each other more responsible than the staff member."
It has worked for Healy, who has been with the program for eight years and is no longer the angry, bitter and troubled man who walked through the doors.
"Today, a good commercial can bring a tear to my eye, and I'm OK with that," he said. "I don't have to be the tough guy anymore. I learned to surface that emotion. If I have a feeling, that's OK. I don't have to react badly to it. I'm a far more well-rounded person."
Brown's working to get there. This day happens to be his youngest daughter's fourth birthday, a day when he's glad that he is clean and sober. Brown, who is almost halfway through the program, said that he is going through this for his two daughters -- he even uses the active-listening skills he's learned with his older daughter, who is 14.
"I want them to know how to express themselves and how to properly get their message across," he said, noting his desire to spare them from the experiences he himself has lived through. "The more I do this, I can be that role model to help them go after what they want and just know that the sky's the limit."
In other words, making sure that they create what happens to them.