From Serving our Country to Serving Those in Need

By Brooke Stanley | brooke@theacorn.com

Rafael and Leo; Mobile Veteran Outreach
ON THE ROAD—Rafael Stoneman, a U.S. Army veteran who works for an outreach program dedicated to housing homeless veterans, sits with his 165-pound husky-malamute, Leo.

Rafael Stoneman has put 30,000 miles on his blue Toyota RAV4 in the past year.

Yet, even with all that mileage, the 49-year-old Army veteran who travels with his 165-pound husky-malamute mix, Leo, is doing most of his driving in Ventura County. He spends much of his time looking for homeless veterans.

Many of these veterans already know him.

John Reyna, a 60-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran, stands in front of the Sandtana RV he’s lived in for the past year. Reyna attended Palomar College and is working on degrees in wastewater and Spanish.

Like John Reyna, a 60-year-old Marine Corps veteran who has been living out of his Sandtana RV for the past year. Stoneman met Reyna at his storage unit on a recent Tuesday morning, where Reyna, a grandfather of two, was preparing to leave for a construction job in Humboldt County.

Stoneman handed Reyna a folded-up wad of cash, gas money for the 600-mile drive to Northern California. “That should help get you halfway there,” Stoneman said.

The money is part of the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation’s Mobile Veteran Outreach program. Stoneman, who writes a monthly column for the Acorn called “Veterans Connection,” is the director of the program, which was launched just over a year ago.

A veteran himself, Stoneman has been able to connect with the people he meets in a way that many civilian outreach workers can’t. Bob Harris, executive director of Gold Coast, said the program has surpassed a 90% engagement rate in recent months, much higher than most outreach programs are able to achieve.

Ask Stoneman and he’ll likely attribute his success to Leo, the big white dog that can be seen by his side at most hours of the day.

“He’s an asset to this work because the veterans that I’m meeting are connecting with him, initially, more than they’re connecting with me because dogs can do that,” Stoneman said.

Harris believes the outreach program started at just the right time. When the coronavirus made its way to Ventura County, the foundation already had a program in place that could help get homeless veterans off the streets and out of the path of the virus.

In response to the stay-at-home orders put in place in March, Harris said, the organization decided to focus all its efforts on housing homeless veterans, many of whom have respiratory ailments from Agent Orange, asbestos or other combat-related exposures.

“We felt that the homeless veterans would pay the highest price on the street with COVID-19 and that we weren’t going to allow that to happen,” Harris said.

While many organizations were shutting their doors and cutting costs, Harris said, the Gold Coast board, staff and volunteers ramped up their efforts and gathered donations totaling $150,000.

Working in partnership with other local and county organizations, the foundation has housed 76 veterans during the pandemic, many of whom have been placed in hotel rooms through the statewide Project Roomkey.

Gold Coast members ramped up their health and safety measures, too, supplying medical grade masks for staff, buying ultraviolet lamps to sanitize the office and creating their own hand sanitizer to pass out to veterans.

Leaders of the foundation said there hasn’t been a single COVID-19 case among the staff or the people they work with.

TRAVEL BUDDIES—Rafael Stoneman and his dog, Leo, travel the county looking for veterans in need and checking in with others. BROOKE STANLEY/Acorn Newspapers

The outreach program was awarded a $130,000 grant earlier this year by the Ventura County Continuum of Care Alliance, a collaborative group with a goal to end homelessness in the county. The grant has allowed Gold Coast to expand the program, adding an additional full-time administrative support person and three volunteers alongside Stoneman, Harris said.

Gold Coast leaders are looking to find funding sources to continue the program before current funds run out in the next six months, he said.

Out of the 76 veterans housed during stay-at-home orders, Harris estimates 85% have moved on to more permanent housing or continued receiving care. He said housing these veterans in local motels had an unexpected consequence: a captive audience.

Harris said they were able to efficiently communicate information about the services they can provide, like helping veterans get Social Security, government documentation or housing, or reuniting them with family.

“(Stoneman) didn’t have to spend all day trying to locate veterans. He knew where they were. He knew exactly what room they were in, and so their care moved at the speed of light,” Harris said.

Stoneman, who has lived out of his car at campsites, gains just as much from his work as the clients he works with—if not more.

“It’s really rewarding to see somebody go from feeling like nobody cares about them to that somebody does care and that somebody’s gone to put the time and energy into them and that they’re valuable,” he said. “Being able to give is the gift.”

For more information about the Mobile Veteran Outreach program, visit gcvf.org.

Source: The Camarillo Acorn article from November 6, 2020