This article was published by The Press Enterprise on March 31, 2018.
There’s a Superman poster on the wall just inside Mark Rodriguez’s studio apartment at March Veterans Village. A mirror covers the superhero’s face.
Rodriguez stepped in front of the mirror and smiled.
“Homelessness has been a problem for me for a long, long time,” he said. “I haven’t had a place to call home.”
Now he does.
Rodriguez, 62, an Army veteran who enlisted near the end of the Vietnam War, is one of 107 veterans who have moved into a new 138-unit housing complex on March Air Reserve Base near Moreno Valley.
Built by U.S. VETS and the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition at a cost of $38 million, officials called the village is the largest facility of its kind in the Inland Empire designed to house homeless veterans.
The village offers 116 studio apartments to single veterans in a four-story tower, said Laney Kapgan, a spokeswoman for U.S. VETS in Los Angeles. A companion three-story building has six one-bedroom units for couples and 16 two-bedroom units, she said. A tot lot, basketball court, courtyard and barbecue grills are outside.
The campus also features a manager’s office, career development center, classrooms, case management offices and a conference room.
The facility opened Jan. 2 and a grand opening ceremony was Thursday, March 29.
Veterans get their own place
Rodriguez, who has a service-connected disability, lives in one of the 116 “efficiency” units on the first floor of the L-shaped, four-story, tower. Just how efficient are they? The units take up a mere 371 square feet.
Rodriguez doesn’t mind.
“As you can see, I managed to put all my stuff in here,” he said. “So it’s plenty big enough.”
There is space on the wall for his Marilyn Monroe posters and a place in the window to hang his Magic Johnson jersey. There is room for a refrigerator, stove, kitchen sink, microwave oven and bed, as well as the easy chair in which he reclines while watching movies on TV.
And there is place to store food.
Opening a door to a cabinet, he said, “Last run they took me on, I bought all that.” Rodriguez pointed to shelves stocked with Top Ramen, canned vegetables, cereal boxes and popcorn.
Eddie Estrada, executive director of U.S. VETS – Inland Empire, said that twice a week resident veterans get the opportunity to go on “market runs” to a grocery store if they lack transportation. Rodriguez does.
Families moving in, too
In the three-story building, whose slick roof was designed to resemble an airplane, the units are a little bigger. One-bedroom apartments span 637 square feet and two-bedroom units are 861 square feet.
“These represent the very first units for families in U.S. VETS’ entire inventory of more than 3,000 units,” Kapgan wrote in an email.
With headquarters in Los Angeles, U.S. VETS operates 20 residential facilities and nine service centers for veterans in five states — Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Texas — as well as Washington, D.C., and Guam.
On a recent tour of March Veterans Village, Kapgan and other officials showed off the few still-unoccupied larger units, which have wide doorways to allow for wheelchairs to pass and spacious balconies that afford a view of the outdoor recreational facilities and courtyard.
“I look at the balcony and I think about families,” Kapgan said. “I think about a mom looking out at her child playing in the tot lot down below.”
The two buildings represent the first of several expected to rise on a half-built, 7-acre swath of March Air Reserve Base near Heacock Street and Meyer Drive.
Steve Peck, president and chief executive officer for U.S.VETS in Los Angeles, said construction will begin soon on a third building. He said the goal is to ultimately house 400 veterans.
The $38 million in financing was arranged by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, which has been working for 31 years to construct low-income housing in Riverside County for veterans, farm workers, people suffering from AIDS and senior citizens.
Complex offers support for veterans
Julie Bornstein, the coalition’s executive director, said in July that the coalition will pass the 2,000 mark in the number of homes it has helped build.
Financing came through federal, state and private sources, and included $7 million from California’s cap-and-trade program that aims to trim greenhouse gas emissions, Bornstein said. She said the project was awarded money because the complex concentrates various services for veterans at the site, eliminating the need for them to travel to get those services.
Peck said handling career development, counseling, mental health and other needs at the same place is a hallmark of the holistic-oriented vision for March Veterans Village.
“We don’t want to give them any excuse not to succeed,” he said.
Kapgan put it this way: “We’re not just building a house, dropping people in it and then saying, ‘Goodbye.’”
At the same time, March Veterans Village offers a place to live with affordable rent for veterans who once had no permanent roof over their heads and who live on meager incomes. With the help of vouchers, they pay no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, officials said.
Estrada said officials want veterans to say, “This is home. This is where I want to be. I’m going to make it here.”
TO APPLY FOR HOUSING
Information: Alberto Rivera, outreach coordinator, 951-999-9118 or 951-269-1119
HOW TO HELP
What: The community is encouraged to donate supplies or money, or to provide meals for the veterans through a “veterans guest chef program”
Information: Eddie Estrada, 951-212-0277