County’s First Veterans’ Village in the Works

Community will give shelter, support to homeless vets

By Brooke Stanley | brooke@theacorn.com

CAN DO—Bill Mors, a 97-year-old World War II veteran, has donated $500,000 and promised 60% of his multimillion-dollar estate to help finance Veterans’ Village. To donate, go to gcvf.org. Courtesy of Gold Coast Veterans Foundation

Bob Harris, who’d recently lost his veteran father to the effects of post-traumatic stress, and Rafael Stoneman, a formerly homeless Army veteran, stood in Ojai Presbyterian Church and prayed.

It was Dec. 8, 2019, and the two men, who both work at Gold Coast Veterans Foundation in Camarillo, had visited the Ojai church to tell its congregants about their mission to help veterans adjust to civilian life after military service.

Perhaps their most ambitious idea was Veterans’ Village, a housing project meant to create a community of support for homeless veterans, providing them with shelter, food and counseling.

Now in its early stages, organizers say the housing project could be home to local veterans in a few months.

Harris, the executive director of Gold Coast, believes the answer to their prayers was sent in the form of Bill Mors, a 97-year-old retired Navy Seabee, World War II veteran and the epitome of the battalion’s “can do” motto.

Mors’ $500,000 donation, along with a promise of 60% of his multimillion-dollar estate, was the funding the organization needed to get the project started.

The foundation is now in negotiations for a 20-acre property in Ventura and launched its first campaign for donations the week of Christmas. So far, they have raised about $525,000 of their $10-million goal.

According to early plans, the village will offer an assortment of mostly temporary housing options, including small log cabins, trailers and spots to pitch tents for up to 100 veterans at a time, including those with family. The foundation plans to accept any veteran, regardless of their ability to pay for their stay.

While they expect most residents to integrate into more traditional housing within a year of their arrival, Harris said, the village could be home to some residents for the rest of their lives.

“It’s about healing and caring,” said Harris, a resident of Westlake Village. “We’ll hold them as long as it takes.”

Perfect Fit

A few blocks away from the church Harris spoke at, Mors, an Ojai resident, had been searching for a way to help his fellow veterans. He had spoken with the heads of a few other veterans’ organizations, but he said many of the traditional programs didn’t offer homeless veterans the care they needed to get them off the streets permanently.

“I soon came to the conclusion that it’s got to be something different,” he said.

Mors marched into the Gold Coast office on Mission Oaks Boulevard one morning in December 2019 looking for the “head honcho.” Mors and Harris talked for hours.

“I’ve never been grilled so thoroughly by anybody in my life,” Harris said.

He said Mors asked him which of the foundation’s programs were most important to him and why, what the foundation would do with more money and what big goals he had for helping veterans.

After every explanation, he challenged Harris: “Is that as far as you go?”

“It drove me nuts,” the foundation director said.

After dozens of questions, Mors was satisfied. He told Harris he planned to donate the majority of his estate to help make Veterans’ Village a reality.

“To be honest, I said a prayer to God and said, ‘Thank you,’” Harris said.

Mors contributed his first cash donation of over half a million dollars in December 2020.

Help from Vin

A year after Mors first met with Harris, foundation leaders have drafted design plans, talked to nearly two dozen similar veterans housing projects across the country, identified a potential building site and recorded a narration of the project with former Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.

During the recording, Scully called on listeners to help the tens of thousands of veterans in the country who are homeless.

“For 67 years I have been blessed to get to talk to you about America’s greatest pastime, but today I’d like to talk about America’s greatest heroes: our veterans,” Scully said. “All of us who enjoy the benefits of peace and freedom provided by the sacrifices of our veterans need to stand up and do something about it.”

With negotiations on a promising property well underway, what the foundation thought would be a yearlong search for a suitable spot has taken just over four months. Harris said they could be housing veterans within the next few months to a year.

Though Gold Coast leaders could never have predicted the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting loss of jobs and wages across the county, the housing initiative couldn’t be coming at a better time. Harris said there are about 83 homeless veterans being cared for by Gold Coast and other agencies in the county and likely hundreds upon hundreds facing the possibility of eviction in the coming months.

Harris said he hopes the village will be a way to help those who are dealing with financial instability as well.

“We should not be waiting for them to land on the street homeless,” he said. “The most important thing is that we get the village open and begin rendering the care.”

Source: The Camarillo Acorn article from January 8, 2021