The Veterans Village of San Diego campus is shown on June 3, 2022. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Following inewsource’s investigation into Veterans Village of San Diego, state and federal lawmakers said they are working to address concerns about conditions at the nonprofit’s rehab center. State health officials are also investigating complaints against the treatment program.

The reporting, published in four stories earlier this month, describes widespread substance use at the renowned drug and alcohol treatment center, as well as unsafe living conditions, violence on the campus, a severe staffing shortage, plummeting food quality and poor sanitation.

The day the articles published, Veterans Village fired employee Danelle Harrington, a former Navy firefighter and graduate from the rehab center who spoke out about her concerns.

The office of Toni Atkins, California Senate President pro Tempore, said the lawmaker has been briefed on inewsource’s investigation and the concerns raised by Veterans Village residents and staff.

“I recently learned of the serious allegations regarding the quality of services at their residential rehabilitation center and severe staffing shortage, and am very concerned,” Atkins, D-San Diego, said in a statement. “With one of the largest concentrations of veteran residents in the country, the need for VVSD’s services in San Diego is more critical than ever.”

San Diego County is home to the third-most veterans of any U.S. county, according to data from the Census Bureau.

Atkins is a longtime supporter of Veterans Village and attends the nonprofit’s annual event for homeless veterans, Stand Down, which has been replicated in hundreds of cities. In her statement, she said the organization has transformed thousands of lives during its 40-year history.

“I will be seeking answers from VVSD and others to better understand the issues at hand,” Atkins said. “I expect VVSD leadership to identify solutions expeditiously.”

Veterans Village CEO Akilah Templeton declined to comment for this story. In a prior interview, she denied the concerns about widespread drug use and poor living conditions in the facility.

Police records show an employee was caught last year selling methamphetamine and exposing himself inside the treatment facility. The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating a suspected fentanyl overdose death that occurred in April. And San Diego County probation officials have pulled clients out of the treatment center and cut off referrals to the program.

“We have removed clients for placement in programs more suited to their needs,” said Chuck Westerheide, spokesperson for the Probation Department. “We will continue to monitor care at Veterans Village of San Diego to determine if it is suitable for our clients.”

During the investigation, inewsource interviewed 44 people who have lived or worked at Veterans Village. Residents, many of whom are veterans, said extensive drug use on the campus has left them struggling to stay sober. Some used phrases like “Club Med” or “minefield” to describe living on the campus.

“We have a responsibility to ensure those who have served our country — and all Americans for that matter — receive high-quality treatment and recovery services,” U.S. Rep. Mike Levin said in a statement.

Levin’s congressional district includes the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and portions of northern San Diego County. He serves as the vice chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“I’m committed to helping VVSD fulfill that mission and am continuing to work with local stakeholders and VA officials to determine what corrective actions may be needed,” he said.

The office of U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, whose district includes the Veterans Village rehab center, said Peters was concerned about the issues raised in the reporting and had reached out to the VA to request a briefing.

“We also plan to reach out to Veterans Village leadership to hear their response,” Chief of Staff MaryAnne Pintar said. “With this information, we’ll determine next steps”

Under state and federal regulations, Veterans Village is required to keep its rehab center free from drugs and alcohol for the safety of staff and residents.

The nonprofit receives its treatment license through the California Department of Health Care Services, which said there are six open complaints against the nonprofit.

“DHCS takes all client health and safety concerns, including active substance use at a licensed facility, seriously and investigates all jurisdictional allegations at licensed residential treatment programs,” spokesperson Anthony Cava said. “DHCS is aware of the issues raised in the article and is currently investigating complaints at Veterans Village.

Cava said if the state finds deficiencies, that could lead to a corrective action plan, civil penalty or license suspension or revocation.

State Assemblymember Chris Ward said he saw the importance of Veterans Village’s treatment center first-hand when he was on the San Diego City Council, and he hopes to help address the staffing shortage the nonprofit is facing.

“A shortage of substance abuse disorder counselors and other staff in these facilities has been an ongoing concern, but we are working in the Legislature to address it as quickly as we can,” Ward, D-San Diego, said in a statement. The nonprofit’s rehab center is located in Ward’s district.

Staffing shortages have affected many social service providers as low pay and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to burnout and high turnover.

In February, Ward drafted AB 1860, a bill designed to increase the number of substance use counselors by removing some certification requirements for students in training. He also said he supports the budget recently passed by the state legislature, which includes more funding for substance use provider training.

“I look forward to working with Governor Newsom on both of these items to increase the substance use disorder counselor workforce so programs like Veterans Village can continue to be successful models for decades to come,” he said.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....