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Homeless veterans’ unlikely home in San Francisco’s Financial District


Jacqueline Cooper is a lot like you.

“I'm not any different than anybody else,” she says. “I'm a mother, I'm a daughter, I'm a sister, a wife at one point.”

However, there’s more to her than that. For one, she’s a retired United States Marine Corps sergeant. For another, she’s dealt with mental illness throughout her life.

“You know I always said mental illness doesn't run in my family; it gallops through it like a herd of horses,” she says. “I was diagnosed bipolar. Looking back I realized that it was very early in life that it manifested itself. I just didn't recognize the symptoms.”

Jackie did recognize a need for structure, though. So, she joined the military.

“It's not just a job,” she says. “It's something you believe in.”

Jackie served in the Marines as an electronics specialist and instructor. She worked all over the United State and in Japan. Her work did not take her into war zones. Instead, Jackie’s combat started after she was discharged.

She felt a loss of purpose; mental illness overwhelmed her.

“I was in the PICU: the psychiatric intensive care unit. I had tried to kill myself after being raped. When I was living on the street,” she says. “I was living on the street under a bush. ... Through not my choices.”

The statistics for U.S. veterans are stark. Nearly 50,000 are homeless. Almost every hour another veteran commits suicide. Even though Jackie is an impoverished vet with a history of mental illness and PTSD, she doesn’t blame those factors for her homelessness.

“It's all part and parcel,” she says. “I like to look at it and say radical acceptance.”

Veterans homelessness is unacceptable

Accepting the mental illness and homelessness of so many veterans is not an option for Michael Blecker.

Michael is the CEO of Swords to Plowshares. It’s a not-for-profit organization that provides wrap-around services for 2,000 veterans in the Bay Area. Michael has been working with them for nearly 40 years.

“Over the years there have been some big efforts to take them off the street. Many of them have died on the street,” he says. The key to helping them, he adds, is gaining their trust. “You need a lot of help with that. You need services. You need somebody who knows what’s out there in the community.”

Six years ago, the resources, the services, and the connections came together. That was when President Barack Obama told the nation, “One of our key goals is to eliminate veterans homelessness.”

In 2009, President Obama said he wanted to get homeless vets housed by the end of 2015. Since then, the federal government has spent over $22 billion dollars on homeless assistance programs.

In 2012, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee took up the cause for local veterans. He said, “Should we not honor that with the best effort to find housing, put a roof over, and have them individually have a lock and key for themselves in a great, expensive place like San Francisco.”

Michael Blecker’s agency was ready to jump in.

“The city,” he says, “needed an experienced partner. A provider that actually knows something about vets. And we have this history.”

It was the collaborative power that Michael Blecker was waiting for; a chance to work with local and federal funding agencies on a large scale. And when a broken, downtown property was offered to the city, Michael knew it could be used to house a lot of homeless vets.

Blecker was familiar with the building. The site was the former Stanford Hotel. Notorious, Michael says, for being a poorly maintained dive.

“And so the owner rehabbed it,” he says, “and I'm sure his idea and intent was not to rehab it for a future homeless vet program with the city. I'll bet that. But anyway, they squeezed 136 units in here.”

A new home for veterans

Jackie Cooper is showing off her new home.

“We have wooden floors. We have the banisters. We have brick work. We've got a kitchen area that is just so amazing,” she says.

Jackie moved into the refurbished six-story, 1908 classic in November.

“So living in this building, which has the most wonderful paint, you know it’s colorful. It’s soothing,” she says. “I have a bigger bathroom. I’m a girl, so I got the bigger bathroom, and that tickles me to pieces. My own bathroom. I don’t have to share.”

Jackie is 43 years old now. Her new studio apartment is outfitted with amenities that make it feel like home to her.

“The dressers, and the refrigerator, and the microwave – all of the rooms here come with that. Swords to Plowshares made sure they’re donated,” she says. “The little round table over there – each of the rooms either has a little round table or a little basket set.”

The building also includes comfortable, inviting common space that serves many purposes.

“We've got an area where we can go sit together,” she says. “There's groups of us that we can go and talk. Even if we don't feel like eating together, we can go sit in there, and we talk. If one of us is having a bad day, because we do, you know, we have depression, one of us will go, ‘Okay. I haven't see you in two days. What have you been doing? What’s going on?’”

Through Swords and the VA, she receives counseling and other supportive services on site. It’s the fulfillment of what Michael Blecker has always wanted for veterans.

“There's really been an outpouring of support for what this building represents, and how folks really want to take care of these veterans,” he says. “[An] important thing about healing from war is to get the support of your fellow country people, you know, so that's maybe what this represents.”

It is just a wall away from the streets. Jackie knows that she’s only six blocks away from the drugs, trouble, and danger that led her to hopelessness. But here, she’s hopeful, and she feels safe.

“I still have trouble sleeping but that's because I have PTSD,” she says. “We have security at the door. I feel safe. I'll get up in the middle of the night and walk downstairs. They know my name, they always check to see how I'm doing. ‘Are you doing okay?’”

Jackie is settling in to a new life, reconnecting with family and planning to go back to school. She’s one of 130 veterans getting the chance to come in from the streets.

The building is about half filled now. It’s expected to be full of veterans by Memorial Day.