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California Veterans Assistance Foundation: Helping Kern's homeless vets

CVAF President and CEO Deborah Johnson, a veteran of Desert Storm, says that since 2009, her organization has helped reduce veteran homelessness in Kern County by more than two-thirds.
California Veterans Assistance Foundation
Posted at 5:44 PM, Mar 15, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-17 13:29:38-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Veterans are thrown parades and given a special day to honor them, but many veterans face a different reality. The California Department of Veterans Affairs reports that cross the state, there are nearly 19,000 veterans are experiencing homelessness.

From Kern County's 2022 Point in Time Count, of the 737 homeless adults counted, 56 of them were sheltered veterans, meaning they live in emergency or transitional housing. Another 39 were unsheltered, meaning they were living on the street.

However, there are organizations in Kern County dedicated to lifting veterans out of homelessness and preventing them from becoming homeless in the first place.

U.S. Air Force Veteran Jerry Winkle was one of those veterans who found himself homeless.

"I became homeless during the pandemic. I was facing an eviction," said Winkle.

An eviction notice left Winkle without a place to go or anyone to turn to.

Jerry Winkle
Jerry Winkle, USAF Veteran

"When you are a 64-year-old man and you find yourself in that position, I was scared. I had no family to speak of. Can't fall back on that," Winkle said.

Winkle tried to get a job, without success, to try and afford a new place, but when the eviction notice was up, he knew he had to find another way to get housing.

"I know what follows homelessness. You lose self-dignity," said Winkle. "You lose self-esteem, and that was important to me."

So Winkle put his ego aside and made what he calls the third most important decision of his life.

"I got to do one thing - even my phone was getting ready to expire - reach out," said Winkle. "And I reached out to the best people."

Winkle called the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, an organization that helps veterans who are or are at risk of becoming homeless get the resources they need.

The timing worked out for Winkle, as there was space to place him in a transitional home. CVAF also helped him get the dental and medical attention he desperately needed. Winkle was also offered help in getting food assistance, and courses about managing personal finances.

According to CVAF President and CEO Deborah Johnson, although CVAF help all they can, not everyone goes through the same process, because everyone's situation is different.

"The best way to approach this subpopulation in your community is to know them. Know them by name, know them by face," said Johnson. "that is what we have implemented here in Kern County."

Johnson, a Desert Storm Veteran, got involved with the homeless veteran community when she back from civilian life and landed in Kern County in 2009.

She explains a key year in this work was 2011.

Deborah Johnson
Deborah Johnson, Desert Storm Veteran and President and CEO of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation

"At that time, we had about 300 homeless veterans that were identified, so that was a time we decided to focus on homeless veterans as a sub population," said Johnson, saying that's changed a lot in recent years. In Kern County, there's an average of 65 to 80 homeless vets at any given time, and the last exact count stood at 76.

"Out of that 76, about 50 percent are in transitional housing, so when you break down that number, we know there are about 40 street-homeless veterans in that community," said Johnson.

Some people accept resources easier than others, which is why Johnson says the organization has taken a personal 'no excuses' approach.

"If I come and engage with you and you are on the street like, 'You can't help me, I have a dog.' We can house you. 'Well, I have a family.' We can house them too. 'Well, my mom lives with me.' We can house them too," said Johnson.

A lot of the insight that led the organization to take this barrier-removing approach comes from formerly homeless individuals who have been included in the solution. Winkle currently sits on community boards that are working to stop homelessness.

"I think more lived-experience advisors should be out on the street doing the legwork," said Winkle, saying it wasn't until this experience that he truly understood what it meant to be a veteran and have that community help him.

For more information on these and other resources in the community, visit the California Veterans Assistance Foundation online.

Information and resources can also be found at the California Department of Veterans Affairs website, where veterans can also file VA claims, apply for home loans, and get support from other veterans.