A life in transition: Homeless veterans struggle to get by in Orange County

It’s close to 10 a.m., checkout time at the Motel 6 in Santa Ana where Jeffrey Riley and his family just spent two nights in a room shared with three other people.

All are homeless and on their way back to the streets.

The Rileys are headed to catch a bus that will drop them a few blocks from the Veterans Affairs Community Resource and Referral Center in downtown Santa Ana, a mainstay in their chaotic lives for the past month.

Riley, a disabled former Navy medic, frets about his inability to better provide for his wife, Alyssa, 19, and their 5-month-old baby. He is unemployed and they’ve been homeless since an eviction in November.

“It’s my baby and my wife that’s really pushing me forward,” Riley says.

On the eve of his 30th birthday, Riley finds the challenge of being homeless is nearly overwhelming. He is not alone: Orange County is home to roughly 450 homeless veterans, a number that is gradually increasing and alarms local advocates.

After three months without a place to live and raise his child, Riley is weary, but not ashamed.

He is eager to share his story, warts and all.

“I didn’t want to be out here with a 5-month-old baby and be homeless. I wanted to be going to school.”


Riley, wearing the same black T-shirt and red shorts he had on the day before, lugs three backpacks stuffed with his family’s belongings to the bus stop – one strapped to his back, another across his front and the third hanging from one shoulder.

He clutches a plastic Goodwill bag bulging with dirty laundry in one of his free hands and smiles down at his daughter.

“Time for a family adventure,” he tells the wide-eyed baby, who smiles back before they board the crowded No. 64 bus. The 12-year-old son of one of their homeless friends tags along.

Along the way, two men nearly get into a fight, something that amuses Riley more than it agitates him. Short but stocky and muscular, he is ever ready to protect his family, with a container of pepper spray the size of a small flashlight tucked in the strap of one of his backpacks, “in case anybody messes with us.”

He teases Alyssa about the two men “dancing” on the bus.

Riley is fairly upbeat for a guy who has been so downtrodden.

“Today,” he says, “is going to be a good day.”

He is ready for one.

Riley says his early life was insecure. Raised in south Orange County by a single mom, he remembers renting rooms in other people’s houses and living in motels. He is estranged from his father and two siblings.

A Marine Corps display at a community center caught his attention when he was about 7. He thought the weaponry looked cool. In 2006, at age 19, he signed up for five years in the U.S. Navy. He spent the last four attached to the Marine Corps.

He was discharged in 2012, shortly after returning home from a six-month stint at a desolate outpost in the hotly contested Helmand province of Afghanistan.

During Riley’s deployment, service members were killed nearby and badly burned by improvised explosive devices. One friend, later diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, took his life last year, Riley says.

Back home, Riley had trouble adjusting to civilian life. He eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He says it’s the reason why attempts to attend school on the GI Bill failed, why finding and keeping a job eluded him.

For a while, he drank too much.

Riley also says he signed up for classes at Everest College, a for-profit career school that was part of Corinthian Colleges. The chain ran afoul of regulators in 2013 and closed last year, accused of preying on students – including veterans and their GI benefits – without providing the education and job placements promised.

“That place basically shut down on me,” Riley says of Everest. “When that happened, I went into another tailspin.”


Riley is just one of a growing number of homeless veterans in Orange County. While the population of homeless veterans in recent years has dropped dramatically nationwide, locally it has increased slightly, part of an overall uptick in homelessness here since 2013.

Finding homes for veterans has been made a priority, and an increasing number of government vouchers and housing programs have been earmarked for veterans, but the market dictates the availability of affordable shelter.

“Landlords can pick the cream of the crop,” says Karen Roper, director of Community Services for the county. “So if you have tenants with any barrier whatsoever – credit, disability, employment – it’s harder to find housing because they are competing against other people.”

Military veterans on the street often are dealing with credit, disability and employment issues, along with the added burden of stereotypes about the “crazed” veteran, advocates say.

And their pride about taking what to them seems like a handout also causes some to delay seeking help.

Still, finding something available in a crowded housing market seems to be the biggest barrier right now in Orange County.

“The market is really tight, so it’s kind of difficult,” says Eduardo Gonzalez of the Los Angeles-based 1736 Family Crisis Center, a nonprofit that began serving veterans in Orange County under a federal grant awarded in 2013.

“You don’t want to be right upfront and say, ‘I’m a veteran and I’m homeless,’” Gonzalez says. “Because what’s going to happen? They’re going to shut the door on you immediately.”


Riley met Alyssa in 2014. They married at the Old County Courthouse in Santa Ana, six weeks after Addison’s birth in September.

Alyssa has steadied him, Riley says, and keeps him on track with about a dozen medications he takes daily – to calm his anxiety, ease pain in his neck and back, fall asleep, fend off depression, stay focused.

Riley carries his meds in the small camouflage-colored bag that he once used to store tourniquets and analgesics as a medic. During a break from filling out a 38-page form at the VA center, he unzips the bag and hunts among the medicine bottles that spill out on the floor for the pill he needs to take.

Alyssa Riley says that the right balance of medication helps her husband: “It’s more like he’s there. Before it was like he was gone.”

The family is alone in a quiet place at the center called the Stand Down Room, where visiting veterans can relax and safely store belongings in a locker. Their friend’s son, who is sick with a cold or the flu, rests on a cot. The baby is on the floor in a foldable changing pad with raised sides, her makeshift bed at the shelter.

The vets center is one of three places where the Rileys keep their possessions. Most of their things are in public storage units, to which they owe $475 in overdue fees; an emergency shelter stores a few other belongings, including the baby’s formula.

The Rileys’ monthly income – most of it from disability payments – is slightly above $2,000, just $250 more than the average rent for an apartment in Orange County. They say they lost their apartment because they fell short of money, and resorted to camping out two weeks at a time at O’Neill Regional Park, while his mother slept in her car.

Then, around the holidays, the Rileys spent a failed month at a transitional living program. They camped out again. Since mid-February, they’ve found nighttime respite through an emergency shelter program for families run by Mercy House.

Rules require the homeless families to leave the shelter during the day, so the Rileys visit parks and the library, sometimes hang out at shopping centers. Both carry several paperback novels to pass the time.

To get around, they walk and ride the bus. Between the two of them, all-day bus passes cost $6.50. Without a baby stroller, they carry Addison in a strap-on pack.

Their $73-a-night motel stay was a way of giving themselves a break from sleeping around strangers on mats in a church hall. Not that Riley is complaining.

“I’m a proponent for the shelter, even if it’s uncomfortable.”


Last month at a symposium on Orange County veterans and housing, advocates talked about the inadequacy of government vouchers as a resource for homeless veterans here because of the reluctance of landlords to accept them.

Since 2009, the Orange County Housing Authority has issued 624 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers that come with supportive services, according to Roper. So far, 552 are in use, she says, with an additional 60 that have been issued to veterans who are looking for a place to rent.

Voucher recipients have a 120-day limit to find housing, but advocates say the search to find a willing landlord often takes longer than that.

“It’s a well-known issue in the veteran community,” says attorney Antoinette Balta, co-founder of Veterans Legal Institute in Santa Ana. “There’s a big push to educate landlords.”

Rapid rehousing programs like the one the Rileys pin their hopes on is another option. Sometimes, families can be housed within a couple of weeks, depending on how avidly they search – and how lucky they are.

The Rileys will be expected to locate a rental, then 1736 will approach the landlord about accepting them under the subsidized veterans housing program. At the end of a two-hour session filling out forms, intake counselor Nicole Pryor advises them not to reveal they are homeless or that Riley is a veteran.

“Right now you guys are just a family looking for housing,” Pryor tells them.

Before their application can be processed, they must get a copy of Alyssa Riley’s Social Security card. But they let that errand – and the dirty laundry – wait so they can meet their friends and catch a bus to The Outlets at Orange. They have a gift card for Buffalo Wild Wings. Alyssa also buys some new outfits for Addison.

With his birthday coming and hope of housing, Riley is feeling celebratory.

“I’m so happy about this.”


Riley couldn’t figure his way out of his situation on his own, so he finally turned to the Veterans Affairs center in February.

Jean Willis, coordinator of services at the center, says it’s typical of young veterans who are single and without stable housing to avoid calling themselves homeless when they can sleep in their car or crash on someone’s couch.

But having a family changes their thinking, especially if they have exhausted resources from family or friends and end up on the streets, Willis says.

“It almost forces them to accept help that they otherwise would not – because they are concerned about their spouse or their children.”

Riley says he wants to learn a trade. Going back to school would also mean another $2,000 a month in GI benefits.

But Riley has outstanding debts exceeding $6,000. He talks of filing bankruptcy.

Riley says that he had too much pride back when he was on his own to seek help from any veterans programs.

He admits that he didn’t respect the veterans who took advantage of services available to them: “I was like, those guys are wusses.”

Riley was better off financially back then because he got money from the GI Bill while in school. And yet, he says, “I was in a cold, lonely place for a long time.”


The words on the marquee outside First Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Santa Ana seem appropriate for the site of the Mercy House emergency shelter program that houses the Rileys at the end of the day.

“Jesus Was a Homeless Man.”

A homeless woman with a suitcase sits to one side beneath it. Riley, eating ice cream he and his wife purchased from a drugstore down the street, laughs when he reads the sign.

“He was!”

It’s 6:30 p.m. and families – many of them single moms with children – trickle in to the church auditorium, where 90 foam mats are set out on the linoleum floor.

Family members are grouped together, with about a foot of floor space separating them from others. They supply their own blankets and pillows, if they have them.

Families can avail themselves of free snacks, beverages and, later, a hot meal. A group of children watches an animated film on a TV, couples talk and read, some rest. Lights don’t go out until 9 p.m.

After finishing the rest of his leftover chicken wings and changing Addison into a pair of snap-up footed pajamas, Riley stretches out on a mat beside his daughter.

“I’m pretty much in the mood for just calling it a night,” he says, closing his eyes. “I’m pretty tired.”

Contact the writer: twalker@ocregister.com

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