Mr. Johnson. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
A Team AMVETS Welcome Home Moving truck parked outside Mr. Johnson’s recently acquired apartment on Pacific Avenue. It’s clad in patriotic colors and full of household necessities that will be given to Johnson, but one item in particular will ensure that this Vietnam veteran can deflate the blow-up mattress he’s been spending his nights on. Johnson has been waiting for this day for over a month. The 58-year-old hasn’t had a bed of his own for over two years, but today that streak will come to an end. As the movers maneuver through the tile hallways of his apartment, Johnson sits on the edge of his new mattress and stares forward, nearly at a loss for words.
“This is a blessed day,” Johnson said. “I’m smiling inside and out.”
AMVETS (American Veterans) was formed in August of 1943 while the allied forces were still fighting the Third Reich. It is the only Congressionally chartered veterans’ organization that honors those that served their country honorably by offering membership eligibility. Team AMVETS Department of California Service Foundation is a non-profit organization which relies on donations and the revenue from their thrift stores to fund multiple programs that directly benefit California veterans.
The Welcome Home Program, which delivers free, donated furniture to veterans who’ve recently acquired housing through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) program, launched Thanksgiving Day 2012 and has furnished nearly 1,400 California homes through October of this year. Because of the high demands placed on its Los Angeles post, The Team AMVETS San Diego Post 1775 handles deliveries in Orange County and Long Beach in addition to San Diego County. Since the Spring of 2013 the non-profit has made 216 deliveries to Long Beach veterans.
In addition to a brand new bed (Welcome Home doesn’t take used mattresses) the program delivers pots and pans, a $100 gift card to spend at a Team AMVETS thrift store, and depending on funding, a gift card for groceries. The veterans are also presented with an AMVETS t-shirt and suicide prevention material and are encouraged to join their local post.
Mitch Mitcham, a National Guard veteran and manager of the Welcome Home Program operating out of the San Diego post orchestrates the delivery. Their day started at 0600 hours, and after a three-hour drive in traffic they’re running a little late for their first delivery. Wearing a garrison hat with pins recognizing his service, Mitcham laid out the few simple rules he operates under. Mr. Johnson will be treated like a paying customer even though Team AMVETS will receive no payment for the furniture they’re unloading into his apartment which, prior to their arrival, contained only an inflatable mattress, two plastic patio chairs and a collapsable food tray. But they’ll also express appreciation for his time spent in the Army.
For Mitcham, there are five words that he stresses above all else as he interacts with the veterans, ones that he says aren’t spoken often enough.
“We’re going to treat these veterans like veterans and not homeless individuals and you have to say, as many times as possible, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Mitcham said, recalling a Vietnam veteran who broke into tears, stating that Mitcham was the first person to ever to express appreciation for his service. "That’s an underestimated form of greeting for a veteran, some of whom have never been thanked for it.”
Mitcham worked for a major retailer for nearly two decades, but because of his veteran status and Team AMVETS' emphasis on seeking out veterans to fill positions, he was recruited to manage the thrift stores. Mitcham said he wanted to do more to help homeless veteran population in the United States.
“I wanted to do something a little more meaningful and leave a footprint that was beyond the stock price of the company,” Mitcham said. “For many of them, this is the first shelter they’ve had, first furniture they’ve had in years. I’m sure that if you went home today and all of your furniture vanished, you would suddenly have an appreciation for having a place to sit down, sleep or set your keys down which most people take for granted.”
The tight confines of some Long Beach apartment complexes have forced the team to be creative when delivering bulky items. Manny Morales, a Team AMVETS driver said they’ll go to whatever lengths possible to complete the delivery.
“You can’t just say no,” Morales said. “The veterans are excited, they’re getting a new fridge or couch. So we find a way to make it happen.”
The impact that the program has made in its short existence is evident in the form of stocky, tattooed volunteer sitting in the back row of the 15-passenger van that Mitcham drives ahead of the delivery truck. Tyler Tomson, a 26-year-old Afghanistan War veteran, was one of Mitcham's deliveries. Now after becoming a member of the San Diego post, Tomson volunteers to help deliver to other veterans in need.
Tomson deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and again in 2011, serving multiple tours as a combat engineer where it was his job to clear routes of roadside improvised explosive devices (IED’s). He explained that when he came home he had some mental issues and ended up in a Texas penitentiary. He moved to Southern California where his only family was located, but was homeless for nearly a year because of the difficulty of finding a job.
He decided to give back because of the feeling he got when the moving truck showed up to his home. He wanted to be able to provide that feeling to his brothers and sisters in arms who were in need just like he was.
“I know from experience from having nothing and really having a hard time just getting one foot on the ground, it’s really nice to see people having the opportunity to get their lives back together,” Tomson said. “With the furniture and getting a place you kind of feel normal again. You feel like you're part of society and part of the community.”
Despite homeless veteran statistics trending downward since 2009 (down nearly 24%), The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR) placed the homeless veteran population at just under 58,000. California is home to the largest fraction of that number, with 15,179 homeless vets according to the report. Of those over 15,000 veterans, nearly 70 percent were without shelter. At the time of the report, Los Angeles County had the largest concentration of homeless veterans (6,291) which was over 40 percent of California’s total. The United States Department of Veterans’ Affairs has pledged to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.
Through an agreement between the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA, qualifying homeless veterans can qualify for (HUD-VASH) vouchers which provide subsidies to help offset the cost of rent for veterans receiving care at VA facilities. According to the VA website, over 58,000 Housing Choice Vouchers had been allocated as of September 30, 2013. Once a veteran has acquired a home through the voucher program, they can check off a wish list of sorts to be sent to AMVETS. Then the wait for the delivery truck to show up begins.
Sharon Elefant worked for the Long Beach VA as the manager for the Southern California Homeless Program prior to becoming the outreach manager for Team AMVETS. The Welcome Home program was her response to the HUD-VASH issue; veterans were off the street but living in empty homes.
“They move into these apartments and they’re empty,” Elephant said. “And sometimes they’re in there for a year or months with nothing in them. They [Team AMVETS] knew that the VA was providing housing for the veterans so as a thrift store operation, if we have excess furniture what would be a good thing to do with it? Well, as a veteran service organization, they kind of said, ‘Lets donate it to veterans.’”
Her family has a long history of military service, and having worked with military veterans for nearly 20 years, Elephant strongly believes it’s the public’s obligation to help those who served their country in the armed forces.
“These service men and women have been through so much that not one of them should ever be homeless on the street,” Elephant said. “It’s the least that we can do as a community to provide them with the support and just to help give someone a sustainable and healthy home environment by providing them furniture so they want to stay home and be able to cook for themselves and improve their health and quality of life.”
The quality of Mr. Johnson’s life had changed drastically in the 20 minutes it took for the crew to unload the contents of the AMVETS truck into his home. As Mitcham and his team concluded their emotional presentation of gift cards, pamphlets and his new AMVETS t-shirt, which is spread across the top of his new couch, each one hugs Mr. Johnson and thanks him for his service.
“Welcome home,” Mitcham said.
“I’ve been home for a long time,” Mr. Johnson said.
The Long Beach Team AMVETS thrift store is located at 3315 E. South Street Long Beach, CA 90805 and all proceeds/donations go toward funding the Welcome Home Program and other programs designed to benefit California veterans. Inquiries on how to donate to Welcome Home can be made with Sheron Elefant at (619)-732-2135.