[Noozhawk’s note: Second in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation. Click here for the first article.]
Victor Virgen has a unique perspective on American combat veterans living on the streets, unhoused and unstable in every sense of the word.
As a U.S. Marine, he’s seen battle on the field and off. As the son of a parent who struggled with substance abuse, slid in and out of jail and prison, and lived off and on on the streets, he knows the struggles unique to these men, women and their families.
For nearly three years, Virgen has put those experiences to work as program manager for New Beginnings Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) Program.
He has overseen support services for more than 1,000 veterans and their family members. Most of the program is federally funded through the Veterans Administration, with a focus on housing homeless vets and their families, providing eviction prevention and connecting them with any other service available.
“I see a lot of my friends who joined the service also struggling with a lot of things that I’m working on with my clients,” Virgen told Noozhawk. “Being able to speak to my friends, my clients, I’m not working out of a text book; I’m living it.
“That allows me to have more compassion, empathy and connect a little better, and also be able to mentor staff on the lived experience on both sides.”
Vets may find their own way to New Beginnings, but most follow a path through the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic; Veteran Services offices in Santa Barbara, Lompoc and Santa Maria; and through the Veterans Treatment Court.
The Santa Barbara County Continuum of Care Coordinated Entry System helps connect veterans to services, but those outside any given system need to make their own way or ask for the help when it’s needed.
“We treat everyone fairly and with respect and we listen,” Virgen explained. “We don’t judge, services don’t depend upon discharge status, which a lot of people are afraid of telling the truth.
“We’ll never just hang up. We’ll always connect you with someone or an agency that can assist you in a warm handoff. … We’ll provide you information, resources and make sure you’re connected to people you need to be connected to.”
New Beginnings SSVF programs focus largely on housing, providing information, education, referrals and resources, and helping veterans apply for housing or educating them about what’s available.
Virgen and other staff members help veterans with budgeting, finding income sources or increasing their income through Social Security, disability compensation or employment, and retaining housing with housing stability plans.
“When you’re on active duty, you always hear, ‘Make a plan. You don’t want to end up a homeless vet,’” Virgen said.
“But I almost did become homeless the first year out of the Marines. After going through school, I really wanted to do something that I felt was fulfilling, giving back to the community.”
He found it at New Beginnings Counseling Center.
Originally founded more than 50 years ago under the moniker Santa Barbara Night Clinic, the rebranded nonprofit organization continues to provide mental health services to vulnerable, low-income and struggling middle-class populations regardless of income, insurance, race, color or creed.
New Beginnings developed one of the nation’s most successful Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing programs, which continues to expand, and offers a variety of psychoeducational programs, including anger-management group sessions, mindfulness groups and parenting groups through its counseling center.
Most recently, New Beginnings has developed coronavirus-isolation support groups, food distribution efforts and collaborated with Project Room Key, a state-led program for moving the unhoused into hotels and motels.
“What makes us unique is we’re really here to meet the needs of our vulnerable community members,” New Beginnings development manager Michael Berton said.
“Mental health and addressing homelessness are huge needs in our community, and when we noticed veterans have higher rates of homelessness, we brought in supportive services.”
New Beginnings focuses on short-term veterans’ assistance that interlaces with other programs for long-term success.
“Our average length of stay is six months getting income, stability and housing, and ensuring they’ll be able to retain housing before exiting them,” Virgen explained.
Rental assistance may include providing up-front cash for security deposits, utility deposits, utility payments, financial aid for auto maintenance and repairs that, in turn, allow dependable transportation to a workplace.
“Anything that helps gain or obtain employment,” Virgen said.
“We know that the hardest part of getting into permanent housing is coming up with the deposit, first and last months’ rent and the actual cost of moving, so we can help with all of that, pay storage fees, getting through the most difficult part,” he said.
Virgen’s main goal is to serve as an advocate for veterans, even down to serving as liaison in tense landlord-tenant relations.
“We use motivational interviewing so they’re part of helping themselves solve the problem rather than us being the problem fixer, integrating them into making the right decisions,” he said.
“The same things they did to survive on the battlefield aren’t the same things they need to thrive now.”
Once in homes, New Beginnings keeps checking up with them.
“We find with some of the people we house who have been chronically homeless for five or 15 years have gotten out of the everyday routine we consider healthy,” Virgen said.
“So it’s really important to check on them, especially in that first 30 days, to make sure they don’t hoard, don’t have friends stay over, make sure they’re being good neighbors and good tenants, maintaining good hygiene and cleanliness.”
At the onset of COVID-19 during unrelated staffing changes, Virgen found himself working alone, acting as liaison to 182 people in 142 veteran households.
“It makes me feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “It makes me feel good that my work is appreciated. It’s instant gratification for everyone.”
But it’s still a challenge.
“It’s hard to watch, and hard to see,” Virgen acknowledged. “I probably quit about 10 times every day, but at the end of the day, it is something I enjoy doing.
“Stressful as it may be, it’s wonderful at the end of the day to see a difference. We still have a long way to go in ending homelessness in the veterans community,” Virgen said.
Click here for more information about New Beginnings Supportive Services for Veteran Families. Click here to make an online donation.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.