By Kristina Houck
After New York City and Los Angeles, San Diego had the third largest homeless population of any American metropolitan area in 2012, according to a report on homelessness by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. An annual one-night count in January found roughly 1,500 of the homeless in San Diego are veterans.
A San Diego-based nonprofit organization is now housing veterans, helping them transition into civilian life.
“We’ve got homeless veterans all over,” said Rick Collins, founder and executive director of Veterans 360. “We’ve got veterans living out of their cars. We’ve got veterans in substance abuse programs. We’ve got a lot of cure options, but we don’t have many preventive options. We want to be viewed as a preventive option.”
The Carmel Valley resident launched the nonprofit organization in October 2012 after he lost four military friends, two who died in combat and two who took their own lives.
Veterans 360 offers help in engagement, education, employment and healing. At the start of September, the organization began leasing a 2,100-square-foot Mira Mesa house to provide a temporary home for up to seven veterans at a time, as long as they participate in the full-time program.
“This is the demographic that’s killing themselves,” said Collins, a veteran of the British military. “They’re the ones in homeless shelters and substance abuse programs. If we can help them before they get to that point, we have a chance to change that dynamic. If not, there’s a very good chance they will end up in some sort of distress and, at worst, take their own lives.”
From service activities with fellow combat veterans, to educational events to prepare veterans for future employment, Veterans 360 hosts several events each week. They work on building their resumes and getting skills training. They also participate in service projects and social activities.
There are currently seven veterans in the full-time program, which requires participants to attend every event, Collins said. Two of them will reside in the rental home once it’s furnished later this month. He hopes to have at least a dozen full-time “students” and welcomes many others to attend the organization’s events.
The problem is finding program participants, Collins said.
“We know they’re out there and they’re out there in the thousands. We just can’t get them to commit to the program for whatever reason,” Collins said. “We’ve got a good program to help these young men and women. We just don’t have the young men and women.
“If you see these veterans, tell them to reach out for support, even if it’s not us. Asking for support and accepting support is not a sign of weakness or an inability to cope. It’s a sign of strength.”
For more information, visit www.vets360.org.