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.