Since 2000, the Presidio has been home to the Veterans Academy, a community where more than 100 formerly homeless senior and disabled veterans find permanent supportive housing where they can age in place. The academy was conceived of and is operated by Swords to Plowshares, a non-profit organization led by Michael Blecker. Michael joined Swords in 1976, just two years after its founding. In 1982, he became its executive director, guiding the agency from its small grassroots origins to one with a continuum of specialized services. Mr. Blecker served in the U.S. Army combat infantry in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969, achieving the rank of Sergeant. In honor of Veterans Day 2016, we talked with Michael about the Veterans Academy in the Presidio.
As an Army post turned national park, the Presidio represents the concept of turning swords into plowshares. What does living here mean to Veterans Academy residents?
It was such a natural fit to repurpose the Presidio's former nurses' barracks into housing for veterans. After we opened in 2000 – with the help of leaders like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who was a champion for us – our program began to serve as a national model. In fact, ours was the very first program in the country. Local mayors, state representatives, fellow providers, and other would tour the Veterans Academy to see firsthand how a supportive housing project for formerly homeless adults with disabilities could be successful. In 2010, Eric Shinseki, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs, visited us to learn more about how we operated and to begin plans to increase supportive housing for veterans. Since then, many more supportive housing programs have come on line across the country, reducing the number of homeless veterans in our communities.
How do your residents use and experience the Presidio?
The veterans living here have benefitted greatly from the Presidio's therapeutic environment. Many were once living on the streets or in blighted areas of the city. Having the opportunity to build a home in a peaceful national park setting has provided residents who have histories of chronic homelessness and substance abuse the opportunity to heal.
Over the past 16 years, our residents have organized a number of community groups and activities that couldn't have been enjoyed without the easy access to nature and the other special aspects of the Presidio. Our veterans have enjoyed outside yoga groups, walking groups, and – from time-to-time – they've helped with the upkeep of the Pet Cemetery in the Presidio. Ultimately, the Presidio is a place where veterans can build camaraderie and community in a beautiful and unique setting.
Did any of your veterans serve here when the Presidio was an Army post?
Long-time resident Samuel Bibbens was in the Army from 1960 to 1963, and he remembers watching veterans being received at the Presidio for medical care after their service. As a veteran, he struggled with drugs and alcohol and initially sought help at Swords to Plowshares. While in recovery, he moved home to New Orleans to make a life for himself. But Hurricane Katrina created a new set of obstacles, and he found himself homeless for three years.
He returned to Swords to Plowshares and applied for the Veterans Academy. In October 2008, Sam moved into the Presidio, which is now his permanent home. He continues to improve aspects of his life by furthering his education, staying clean and sober, and by serving an active role in his community. He's said that living at the Veterans Academy in the Presidio has been the "pinnacle" of his life; he feels he lives in one of the most beautiful places in the country.
What do you wish people understood better about the veteran experience?
I wish more people understood that war causes wounds and suffering that last beyond the battlefield. Veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless population and many more struggle with poverty, substance abuse, and mental illness at much higher rates than their civilian peers. Also, I wish more people understood that while the Veterans Administration (VA) does so much, not all veterans are eligible for VA care and services. Therefore, it's up to organizations like Swords to Plowshares to help those who've been denied access, stripped of their honor and benefits, and even help those who've simply abandoned hope that our government could help them. With the population of Vietnam veterans aging and facing more intensive physical and psychological problems, the need for permanent supportive housing is high and urgent.
What additional role would you like to see the Presidio play in the life of the veterans' community?
We're excited to work with the Presidio's new CEO, Jean Fraser, who has a background in healthcare and housing development. We want to ensure that the 100+ veterans who now live in the Presidio will continue to have a home there for years to come. With more than 70% of San Francisco's veterans being seniors, we would like to see the development of a senior center for veterans in the Presidio.
What's your favorite place in the Presidio?
The Presidio is a beautiful place and has so much to offer – in fact, my daughter went to the Bay School in the Presidio, so I've spent a lot of time there. Though I have to say, my favorite place is the picnic benches located right on our Presidio Veterans academy site; it's a place where I can talk with the veteran residents and connect with our community.