Five Vietnam veterans set out on a mission.
In 1981, unhappy with the VA’s offerings, the group of men formed a new institution — Vietnam Veterans of San Diego — to tackle the trauma and addiction they had struggled with first-hand.
“What we learned was that we couldn’t deal with the war as long as we drank or used, and we couldn’t deal with the using until we dealt with the war,” said Jack Lyon, one of the founders. “They sort of had to be dealt with simultaneously.”
Why this matters
Veterans Village of San Diego has provided counseling, employment, housing and other services for more than 40 years. It has been lauded by dignitaries and presidents for its approach to tackling addiction and homelessness.
Lyon and the other founders established Triple Threat, weekly meetings at the San Diego Vet Center for veterans to discuss war and addiction. Then, with the support of then Mayor Pete Wilson, the group placed more than 1,000 veterans in new jobs. They also created The Landing Zone, a recovery home for people with heroin addiction.
By 1990, the organization had gained enough traction to build a rehabilitation center on the site of an old motel, where the campus still sits today with a new name — Veterans Village of San Diego.
A former lieutenant in the Marine Corps, Lyon said he relied on drugs and alcohol to push down the memories of the war. It wasn’t until he was institutionalized in the late 70s that he became sober, and he wanted to give back to other veterans in need.
“It’s a two-way street, that contract,” Lyon said. “I go to war, you take care of me when I come home.”
“That’s not the VA’s job, that’s our job,” he added.
Lyon, now 81 years old, said he has seen so many dedicated staff and residents at the organization work together to transform lives.
“I would go to the house meeting when the kid graduates and you listen and you look and you go, God, that is fantastic, man,” he said. “That’s magic. And what’s magic is that people care. And there is no sense of us up here and you down there. It’s us together.”
In 1996, a San Diego State University professor completed a two-year study, which found that six months after graduating from Veterans Village, 72% of residents were sober and about two-thirds were employed with a home to live in. The researcher concluded that the program was “more effective than other known and tested rehabilitations” for veterans.
The nonprofit quickly gained recognition. In 2001, Peter Dougherty, the VA’s national director of homeless veterans programs, said, “There is no finer program for homeless veterans in America” than Veterans Village.
The nonprofit has built a one-stop-shop for addiction counseling, therapy, housing and employment services. It also offers music and expressive arts programs, equine therapy and gardening.
Staff and residents said dignitaries and international travelers have visited the campus over the years to study what makes it successful.
“They have so much faith in you when you’re at this all time low,” said Heather Miller, a former resident.
Miller has lived on the campus three times since 2019, including a seven-month stay last year. Enrolling at the rehab program was a condition of her release from jail as she made her way through Veterans Treatment Court, which offers alternatives to incarceration for former military personnel.
When Miller graduated from treatment court in January, she thanked her old mentors from Veterans Village for making it possible.
“Never once did I feel like I was inconveniencing them or putting them out if I asked for extra help or I needed some guidance,” Miller said. “They were right there.”
Miller said she noticed the treatment center change dramatically last year when longtime employees — who inspired her during her treatment — quickly left the nonprofit.
“It all crumbled, you know?” Miller said. “Then from that point on, you have new staff, new people that have not really that much experience or know what’s going on with how it’s run. And I think that’s all she wrote.”
Over the decades, Veterans Village has adapted to the needs of new generations of veterans and growing societal concerns, including a burgeoning homeless population.
But current and former employees worry that the storied program is disconnecting from the veterans it was created to serve and its focus on rehabilitation. Growing concerns about the quality of care at the treatment center have fueled the resignations of longtime employees over the past year and a half.
Starting in 2017, the nonprofit added dozens of transitional housing beds on the back side of its campus where substance use treatment is not provided.
Then in 2018, Veterans Village started accepting funding through the California Drug MediCal program. With the new funding stream, the rehab center could admit a wider range of residents, including non-veterans.
The recent changes coincided with the increasing popularity of a concept called Housing First, which prioritizes access to basic necessities like shelter and food for unhoused people, hoping it will position them for success in other aspects of their lives, like recovering from addiction and finding employment.
“What we’ve been able to show over time is that housing people is often the very first critical step to helping people then engage in treatment to address their substance use and address their medical issues and address their mental health issues,” said Carla Marienfeld, a psychiatrist at UC San Diego who studies best practices for substance use treatment.
In late 2019, Veterans Village added three new members to its Board of Directors who have advocated on housing issues in San Diego. All three are board members for the Lucky Duck Foundation, a local nonprofit that funds homeless services and endorses a housing-first approach.
Less than a year later, the Veterans Village board chose Akilah Templeton as CEO.
“I took the job at VVSD because I’m deeply connected to the mission,” said Templeton, the first non-veteran to lead the organization. Before taking the role, she was the executive director of U.S.VETS Inglewood.
“My vision of success for the organization involves ensuring that the organization is considered best in class,” Templeton said. “That vision involves ensuring that as a veteran service organization, we are doing our part in the fight to end veteran homelessness and improve the overall quality of life for our nation’s heroes.”
Through its government grants, Veterans Village currently receives about $83 per day for VA-funded residents and roughly $206 per day for Drug MediCal residents.
Last year, the nonprofit nearly doubled the number of Drug MediCal beds from 56 to 101 and reduced the number of VA-funded rehab beds available. The MediCal program now brings in more revenue to the organization than any other funding source.
But the program is still not mentioned on the nonprofit’s webpage for its rehab center, and neither is its enrollment of non-veterans.
Records show that more than two-thirds of the nonprofit’s funding goes toward veterans programs — more than $15 million — and the remaining $7 million of revenue supports services for both veterans and civilians.
“As an agency, we are committed to keeping our non-vet population to under 10% across all programs,” Templeton said, “meaning 90% of the people we serve will always be veterans.”
Last fiscal year, there were 534 residents enrolled at the Pacific Highway campus, which includes rehab and transitional housing programs, according to data provided by Veterans Village leadership. Among the residents, 174 were not veterans.
Leadership did not provide specific enrollment numbers for the rehab center, where residents and staff have witnessed a growing population of civilians over time.
“It was sort of chilling. It was incredibly sad to think, wow, this thing is starting to crumble, because one by one people would leave.”Marilyn Cornell, former Veterans Village employee
Alyce Fernebok, chairman of the Board of Directors for Veterans Village, said the organization is focused on serving veterans, but it also looks for chances to help other people experiencing homelessness.
“We do veterans first,” she said. “If we have openings where we can also serve our community, where we can also serve other human beings, we want to do that. We want San Diego to know we are here for you.”
Over the past two years, current and former employees said, Veterans Village has prioritized filling beds over providing high quality care, which has affected the atmosphere at the rehab center.
Leadership no longer walks around campus to listen to the needs of staff and residents, they said. Managers started holding daily meetings to discuss the census and ways to increase enrollment. Plus, executives restructured the organization, eliminated positions and asked some employees to reapply for their jobs.
Earlier this year, members of Veterans Village leadership moved their offices off the grounds of the treatment center to a new location in Mission Valley.
Templeton, the CEO, said the nonprofit is focused on providing high quality care and reducing barriers to accessing services.
“Our only concern as it relates to revenue and occupancy is to be fiscally responsible and also have the greatest possible impact, right?” she said. “Meaning that as long as there are homeless veterans and veterans who are in trouble, then we are going to look for ways to help them. And that requires money.”
In October 2020, a senior vice president who worked at Veterans Village for 30 years suddenly left the organization. So did the vice president of development, who later sued the nonprofit, claiming she was fired as retaliation for requesting family leave. That case was sent to arbitration outside the court and dismissed in May.
Templeton said she could not comment on lawsuits, adding that “VVSD does not terminate people for requesting leave.”
Veterans say renowned rehab program is now a minefield of drug abuse
In August 2021, following numerous disagreements with management, the director of the veterans rehab program put in a two-weeks notice and was walked off of the property that day without being able to collect her belongings.
It wasn’t long before a second lawsuit was filed by another former employee who said Veterans Village failed to pay her and other staff overtime, despite regularly working an extra five to ten hours each week.
“It was sort of chilling,” said Marilyn Cornell, the former clinical director of Veterans Village, who oversaw mental health services. “It was incredibly sad to think, wow, this thing is starting to crumble, because one by one people would leave.”
Cornell said she was shocked when Veterans Village conducted a fundraiser with a local beer company, Resident Brewing, in October. Proceeds from their new ale, “Gratitude,” were going to be donated to the nonprofit.
“The optics are not good, because people know that VVSD treats those who are ravaged by drugs and alcohol,” she said.
Cornell retired last year, in part because of her concerns about the organization. She also chose not to assist with this year’s Stand Down, the nonprofit’s signature multi-day event that connects veterans with public services and community support.
It’s her first time not volunteering for the event since 1989, she said.
“It was not a group of people that said, ‘Let’s sit down and try to figure this out, what’s best for the veteran,’” Cornell said. “That’s the concern of mine, is that the veteran is lost in all of this.”