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Local advocate behind push for funds for veteran housing


When homegrown veterans aid group Flower of the Dragon opened in an old Montgomery Village laundromat in 1974, its $9,000 budget covered utilities, a bookkeeper's salary and a pool table.

That last item was a necessity to establish Sonoma County's first nonprofit center for veterans at a time when an unpopular war had roiled the nation and returning troops were cast as pariahs.

Times have changed dramatically, as flag-waving crowds now welcome back war fighters from the Middle East, and Flower's successor -- Santa Rosa-based Veterans Resource Centers of America -- now operates 11 offices in California, Nevada and Arizona with 94 employees and an annual budget of $7 million.

But there's one constant, said Peter Cameron, a Vietnam War veteran who helped start Flower of the Dragon and is now VRC's executive director.

War veterans, in their sometimes painful effort to reintegrate into their families and communities, still need two of life's basics: a job and secure, affordable housing.

"It's as simple as that," said Cameron, 69, a veterans advocate for more than 40 years who has no plans for retirement.

In California, with about 16,500 homeless veterans -- including 400 in Sonoma County -- housing is a critical need, especially in high-priced markets such as Sonoma County.

Cameron has his fingers crossed over a potential game-changer: a proposed $600 million state bond act to finance rental housing for veterans.

Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, said Cameron played a crucial role in crafting the bill, AB 639, approved last month by the state Assembly and Senate on a combined vote of 114-0.

"Peter's was truly the voice for veterans in getting this bill through the Legislature and to the governor," Perez said. "His work will benefit not only those veterans in California but also those in other states that hopefully will follow California's lead and establish similar programs."

Despite the lawmakers' unanimity, the bill's backers don't know if the independent-minded and fiscally conservative Gov. Jerry Brown will sign the measure by the Oct. 13 deadline.

Cameron, whose hair and neatly trimmed beard are snow white, hopes history will repeat itself. He has a black-and-white photo of himself and Brown in 1976, when the first-term governor agreed to fund a veterans business development program for Flower of the Dragon.

The California Department of Veterans Affairs has more than $1.1 billion in authorized bond funding for loans to help veterans buy homes and farms, but the program is virtually stagnant with just 83 loans issued last year.

Historically low mortgage interest rates on the open market stifled use of the CalVet loan program, which has a 3.9 percent rate, officials said.

AB 639 would restructure the program, authorizing $600 million for construction of rental housing and leaving $530 million for home loans.

If Brown signs the bill, the bond proposal would go before California voters in June, its chances buoyed by the public's history of approving 23 veterans' bond measures since 1943.

"We see this as ultimately a permanent solution to homelessness," Cameron said, dressed casually in his Santa Rosa office for the North Bay Veterans Resource Center.

While $600 million would finance about 3,000 rental units, it would allow nonprofits to leverage additional funding, he said.

VRC would like to build 50 to 150 units in Sonoma County, and "we could fill them quite quickly," he said.

In August, local veterans advocates launched a campaign to place 30 homeless veterans a month in stable housing, triple the current placement rate, through the end of 2015.

That effort is colliding with Sonoma County's apartment rents, among the highest in the state, combined with a minuscule vacancy rate. The ideal solution, a local property manager said, would be construction of more apartments.

Sonoma County is "a hard place for veterans to find a roof over their head," said Chris Bingham, the county's veterans service officer.

California's 1.87 million veterans accounted for 5 percent of the state population, while the estimated 16,478 homeless veterans represented 12.6 percent of the homeless population in 2012, according to the Veterans Affairs Department.

In Sonoma County, 384 homeless veterans accounted for 8.6 percent of the homeless population.

A county survey in January found 400 homeless veterans and said they represented 11 percent of the adult homeless population. The same survey found homeless veterans were older and experienced more physical, mental and drug abuse problems than other homeless adults.

Cameron, who was drafted into the Army in 1965, served a year in Vietnam as a supplies expediter and returned to Sonoma County in 1967. He used GI Bill benefits to get a degree in clinical psychology at Sonoma State University, and started counseling veterans at Oakcrest, the county's former mental health center.

"I was compelled to mitigate some of the pains of war," Cameron said.

He and other Vietnam veterans and their friends formed the core of about 20 people, all volunteers, who opened Flower of the Dragon's first office in 1974 in a Montgomery Village storefront given rent-free to the fledgling organization by Hugh Codding, who died in 2010.

In a 1974 interview, Cameron said that Flower offered "rap groups" for disaffected veterans and provided limited mental health, employment and other services to about 200 veterans in the past year.

Early fundraisers included a marathon skating contest at a Healdsburg roller rink and concerts by Country Joe McDonald, a Navy veteran and psychedelic rock singer known for his anti-war "Fish Cheer" which morphed into another four-letter word.

A Flower of the Dragon softball team, which "kicked ass" in a city recreational league, Cameron said, helped a bunch of long-haired Vietnam veterans "get back pride in themselves."

By the late 1970s, Flower had a staff of nearly 40 and a $750,000 budget, drawn primarily -- as it is now -- from federal grants.

The program was recognized as a national model by the Carter administration, and Cameron and others traveled the country to help start similar veterans service nonprofits until 1981, when federal funding went dry under the Reagan administration.

Flower of the Dragon shut down in 1985 and was replaced by Vietnam Veterans of California, which operates the Veterans Resource Centers in Santa Rosa and six other California cities, as well as Reno and three Arizona cities.

In Sonoma County, the organization operates an eight-bed transitional housing project in Petaluma and a 15-bed rehabilitation program at a remodeled home on West Hearn Avenue.

VRC, which offers a host of housing, job training and behavioral health treatment and other programs, served about 4,000 veterans in 2012 and expects to serve 6,000 next year with two new offices opening soon in Chico and Carson City, Nev.

Of the 4,000 veterans served, 62 percent had disabilities, including psychological problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and drug or alcohol dependency, and 39 percent had no income at the time they sought help.

Cameron has "a passion for making things right for veterans," Bingham said.

Demand for services is growing, he said, noting that 500 people came to the county Veterans Service Office on Westwind Boulevard in August, a record number.

Cameron, a Cloverdale resident, drives 3,500 miles a month visiting VRC's offices, spread from Eureka and Redding to Menlo Park and Santa Cruz, and Sacramento, where he is well known in the state Capitol's hallways.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, a Vietnam combat veteran, called Cameron "an American hero."

"He understands that no one who has ever fought for our nation in the Armed Forces should have to fight for a job, housing or health care when they return to civilian life,"

Thompson said. "Our country and state are stronger because of Peter's work."

Cameron remembers that Thompson, as the North Coast's state senator, helped his organization get a house in Eureka that is still a 12-bed veterans housing facility.

"He even came down and helped us paint the walls," Cameron said.

Veterans Resource Centers is still in a growth mode, about to open new offices in Chico and Carson City, Nev.

Vietnam veterans in the 1970s "just wanted to get back to their lives, their families," Cameron said, and that holds true for today's Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

"I take satisfaction from this work every day," he said, and retirement is not an option.

"There's too much work to do," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.