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Formerly homeless veterans find hope, peace on Mather campus

In the quiet hours before dawn, when the jungles of Vietnam invade his sleep, Ernesto Hayles retreats to his safe place.

With his burly black Labrador, Shadow, he descends the stairs of his new apartment building in Rancho Cordova, built especially for military veterans like him who are disabled or have lived on the streets. Settling into one of the many iron benches scattered across the courtyard, he often sees other sleepless veterans occupying their own benches, processing their own thoughts. Words are unnecessary.

“We’re all veterans, so we understand what is going on,” said Hayles, who was 17 when he entered the Army in 1974.

In early 1975, he said, he was sent to Vietnam as part of a cleanup operation that included destroying weapons and searching for bodies of American soldiers. More than 40 years later, he still has nightmares so vivid that they wrestle him out of bed and onto the floor, where he will sometimes assume a firing position.

“I saw so much murder,” Hayles, 59, said, crying as his wife, Roxanne, laid a hand on his shoulder on a recent day. “I don’t really like to talk about it.”

It was not until recently, after his erratic behavior repeatedly cost him jobs and finally his home, that Hayles was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He takes pills and undergoes counseling to help him deal with his terrible dreams and unexpected emotional outbursts. Shadow, a certified service dog, comforts him and helps him navigate stairs, a problem related to his poor depth perception. But the best therapy of all has been living at Mather Veterans Village, the first phase of a $55 million project that opened this summer at the former Mather Air Force Base.

The complex, the first of its kind in the Sacramento area, is the culmination of years of collaboration among Mercy Housing California, the Veterans Resource Centers of America and the city of Rancho Cordova. It features 50 new apartments in a three-story building painted pale green with wood accents. The campus, which will be officially unveiled on Wednesday, operates on solar power, and its outdoor landscaping requires little water. Veterans can obtain services including health care, substance abuse counseling and employment help on the premises.

Phase 2 of the project, expected to be completed in 2018, will offer 60 transitional housing spaces for residents who need supportive care, said Mercy Housing regional vice president Rick Sprague. Phase 3, to be finished in 2019, will add another 50 permanent housing apartments.

The current building is fully occupied. “I have never met a group of residents who are so grateful,” Sprague said.

About 11 percent of the nation’s homeless people are veterans, according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Fifty percent of them are age 51 or older, the agency estimates. Half have serious mental illnesses including PTSD and 70 percent are substance abusers. Sacramento Steps Forward, which coordinates Sacramento County’s homeless programs, has reported that 2,650 people were homeless in the county on a single night in January 2015, and 12 percent of them were veterans.

HUD’s supportive housing program for homeless veterans covers most of the cost of rent for residents of the Mather village. The Department of Veterans Affairs covers clinical services including counseling and medical care. The effort is part of a broad federal initiative that began under President Barack Obama in late 2009 to reduce homelessness among veterans.

Veterans interested in obtaining housing in the Rancho Cordova complex are screened for eligibility by the Veterans Resource Center, which submits their applications to Mercy Housing. Eligible veterans must be either disabled or recently homeless, and willing to receive supportive services for issues such as drug addiction and mental illness.

The new apartment building has given Army veteran George Thomas, who served as a field radio repairman between 1979 and 1986, a new start. Fit and trim at age 60, Thomas is a recovering addict who sold crack cocaine on the streets of Del Paso Heights following his military career. The loss of his father, who he called his “best friend,” six years ago took him to his lowest point, when he lived in his his 1998 Cadillac El Dorado and hustled for money for food.

“I felt alone, useless, hopeless,” Thomas said. “I asked God at one point to take me, because I didn’t want to be homeless.”

Instead, he said, God led him to Rancho Cordova and Mather Veterans Village.

Although he is “tempted every day” by drugs, Thomas said, he is successfully fighting his cravings. He takes long walks around the sprawling Mather campus, watches football and action movies on the television in his living room, and cooks catfish and collard greens in his sparkling new kitchen. The campus is quiet, and the silence gives him peace.

“I’m so happy and relaxed,” said the soft-spoken Thomas, who moved into his apartment in early June. “I’ve got a roof over my head. I have my own bathroom and shower and bed. I don’t even mind washing the dishes and cleaning up. It’s a blessing to be able to do those things now.”

Thomas is eager to work, he said, and has applied for jobs at the Veterans Administration hospital, which is just a block away from his home.

“This place gave me a reason to live again,” he said. “It has made me a part of something.”

Following his honorable discharge from the Navy in 1999, Abram Hart, 38, also succumbed to drugs. The methamphetamine he took, he said, temporarily “numbed me” from the effects of PTSD tied to memories of being raped by a Navy comrade in the middle of the night.

“Substance abuse killed all of those thoughts,” he said. But it also led to his homelessness.

In 2015, at a “Stand Down” event for homeless veterans, Hart learned about Mather Veterans Village. Now he wakes up in an apartment he has filled with scented candles, fresh flowers and inspirational plaques. “A True Love Story Never Ends,” one of them reads.

On a recent afternoon, he even got a visit and handshake from the mayor. “Welcome to the neighborhood!” Rancho Cordova Mayor David Sander said. “We’re glad you’re here.”

Hart is receiving counseling for his flashbacks and nightmares, and attends a program designed to help him put his drug use behind him forever. He rides to appointments on a bicycle he was awarded for completing various programs aimed at keeping him free of addiction, he said.

“I feel very safe in this place,” said Hart, wearing camouflage shorts and a T-shirt, his blue eyes intense, as he sat on the sofa in his living room. “Now I can actually live in peace. I don’t have to worry about being on the streets, getting shot at, being robbed. This is my home.”

Ernesto Hayles, who holds several certifications in the culinary arts, has filled his kitchen with cookbooks and an impressive collection of whisks, colanders and knives. His counter holds a Kitchen Aid mixer, and attached to one wall is a poster depicting various cuts of meat. Now, rather than cook for hospitals or restaurants, he makes meals for the poor. He and his wife, Roxanne, volunteer for the Sacramento Food Bank and for their church in Oak Park, which every Friday serves lunch to hungry people. This week, he would prepare chicken Parmesan with fresh tomatoes and basil.

“We’ve usually got a line around the corner,” said Hayles one afternoon, dressed in chef’s pants, a San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt and a Vietnam Veteran ball cap. “We get a lot of compliments on our food.”

Hayles dutifully takes his medication and attends counseling for the PTSD, he said, but the nightmares keep coming. Sometimes he is afraid to fall asleep.

“Can I tell you about the same one I have over and over?” he said. “The Viet Cong are chasing me, pointing their guns at me. … I get to a cliff, and I’ve got to jump to get away.”

The nightmare usually ends with Hayles falling from bed, screaming for his life, weeping in the arms of his wife.

And then, no matter the time, he walks out into the darkness and onto one of Mather Veterans Village’s welcoming benches. In a few minutes, he is calm again.

Editor’s Note: This story was changed on Aug. 31 to clarify the nature of Ernesto Hayles’ military service.

Cynthia Hubert: 916-321-1082, @Cynthia_Hubert

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