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San Diego County, City Take Action To Help Disabled, Incarcerated Vets

An American flag mural fills an entire exterior wall of bar formerly known as...

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Above: An American flag mural fills an entire exterior wall of bar formerly known as El Uno in City Heights near University Avenue, Nov. 10, 2016.

On Tuesday, the city of San Diego announced a plan to help disabled veterans while the county took a step toward strengthening an outreach program for veterans being held in the Vista Detention Facility.

On a 4-0 vote — Greg Cox was absent — the county Board of Supervisors directed Chief Administrative Officer Helen Robbins-Meyer to develop a plan for participants in the Veterans Moving Forward program at the Vista Detention Facility, including options for future housing.

Robbins-Meyer will also find additional vocational training space in the jail, and work with community partners to develop job training and certification opportunities for veterans after they are released. Robbins-Meyer will have up to three months to present the board with a plan.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar — who along with Jim Desmond recommended the proposal — said the county is home to one of the largest population of veterans in the United States and "adjusting to civilian life is very challenging," especially for those who find themselves in jail.

According to the county, there has been a significant increase in the number of veterans booked into regional jails over the past three years. In 2018, there were 637 veterans booked into a San Diego County jail, with an average of three bookings per veteran.

In 2013, the county Sheriff's Department and San Diego Veterans Administration started the Veterans Moving Forward program for male veterans in the Vista jail.

According to county documents, the program "provides veterans necessary in-custody treatment, services, and community linkages to reduce their chance of incarceration."

During a three-year period, the San Diego Association of Governments conducted an evaluation of the VMF program, followed up by report released in March. The study compared two groups of veterans, including 141 who lived in a veterans-only housing unit and a second group housed in a detention facility with the general population.

The SANDAG report highlighted program successes, including the use of a multi-disciplinary team to help veterans re-entering the civilian world, but concluded improvements were needed in helping veterans with basic needs, housing and employment.

Along with housing assistance, the VMF program has also identified a greater need for substance use treatment and financial assistance.

Desmond, who served in the Navy, described the program as "what's right with government." He said he recently toured the Vista jail and saw vets taking courses and even meditating.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said veterans aren't immune from accountability if they commit crimes. But if they pay their debt to society, a grateful nation allows for their redemption.

"As a country, we're remarkably efficient at making combat veterans, along with paying for a massive military budget," said Fletcher, himself a Marine. "Today's action helps us to fulfill the care of those that we make."

Fletcher suggested that the county extend the program to its central jail downtown.

Several members of American Combat Veterans of War spoke in favor of the program. David Brahms, a Marine and attorney, said his group's mission "is to reach out to those who have experienced the horrors of war, those who need a hand up," which includes mentoring veterans in the Vista jail and even giving them pocket money.

"We'd like to think we've made a difference and like to continue our efforts," Brahms said. "When those (jail) gates clang shut, a veteran is isolated from the world."

Meantime, the city of San Diego will begin offering home improvement funding assistance for its disabled veterans, Councilman Chris Cate announced..

The Home Improvements for Our Heroes pilot program will make up to $1,000 available for residents who require improvements to their homes like adding wheelchair ramps or widening hallways. According to Cate's office, the city has roughly 35,000 disabled veterans in need of home improvements.

"I'm pleased to partner with our city's Development Services Department on this pilot program that helps our disabled veterans with home modifications that make their lives easier," Cate said. "It is our duty to help those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom."

San Diego is making a total of $25,000 available on a first-come, first- served basis and could make more funding available in the future. Program applicants must complete an improvement project and will then receive a rebate for city permitting fees once the project is inspected.

Applicants to the program will be pre-screened, according to Cate's office. Residents can apply to the pilot program at sandiego.gov/citycouncil/cd6/HIfOH.

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