News & Awards

San Francisco Chronicle

New S.F. digs for veterans in need

by Kevin Fagan

Mark Hedtke was sitting on Ocean Beach in June 2011, guzzling quarts of Coors beer after another seemingly endless night in a homeless shelter. He was smelling the salt air, hearing the crows and considering killing himself.

But he thought about something else, too – and that’s why he is alive today at 57.

Hedtke thought about his time in the Air Force from 1975 to 1980.

He earned two commendation medals back then. He and his buddies depended on each other. It was home. Maybe, he thought, he could have a home like that again.

So instead of ending it all, Hedtke checked himself into an alcohol rehab program. And now, after 17 months of being sober for the longest stretch of his adult life, he is about to take the biggest leap toward stability he’s taken since his honorable discharge – he’s moving into a new supportive housing complex for homeless military veterans co-run by the nonprofit Swords to Plowshares.

It’s about the best Veterans Day gift he could imagine, Hedtke cracked, noting that the holiday honoring all vets comes on Sunday.

“I just realized after all the years of homelessness, my life was getting worse quicker, and it was time to live or die,” Hedtke said, standing the other day in the nearly completed Veterans Commons complex on Otis Street just south of Market Street.

He looked around, grinning at the sight of the new green and red paint on the walls and light streaming in through the spacious windows. Other homeless veterans ready to move in, all middle-aged like him or older, milled around with the same kinds of grins.

“All of us here, we all have some damage, we can all relate,” Hedtke said. “We can have each other’s backs again. We can have new lives.”

Plenty of friends

Hedtke and 74 other vets will be taking up residence in Veterans Commons over the next week or so. It was developed over the past four years with $30 million in state, federal, city and donation funds.

The complex was constructed in the nine-story-high shell of what had been the first juvenile hall in San Francisco, a city landmark built in 1916 by famed architect Louis C. Mullgardt. Except for the arched doorway and finely crafted window facade, the building is utterly transformed.

The efficiency apartments are all move-in ready, with new furniture and kitchens full of new appliances. The third floor has a game room and a community room, and two community kitchens feature mess-hall style seating.

It’s the first such housing to open in San Francisco since Swords’ Veterans Academy opened in the Presidio in 2000.

“These are very frail veterans, with a lot of health issues and needs,” said Leon Winston, chief operating officer of Swords, which developed the complex with the nonprofit Chinatown Community Development Center. “Having this housing here will help people stay out of hospitals and clinics, and that not only saves the health system millions of dollars in emergency care – it will give these men and women better lives.”

Personal struggles

Each of the new residents struggles with disabilities of one form or another – physical injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental difficulties, substance abuse – and the “supportive” part of the housing specifically addresses those concerns. The complex will be staffed by three social workers from the Veterans Administration and the city’s Human Services Agency, and the VA and city Public Health workers will run an on-site health clinic.

The most important thing that binds the new residents is their time in the service and the unshakable sense of togetherness that instilled in them.

“Moving into a place like this takes these vets back to a time when they were OK and not just looking out for themselves, but for their brothers and sisters in the military,” said Michael Blecker, Swords’ executive director. “Being together gives them community.

“But it’s not just about taking help – we require them to give back,” he said. “Together, they can all move forward.”


Fellowship and family

That message has already sunk in deep.

“I am alone in the world, and the military is really the only family I’ve got,” said incoming resident Ron Jones, 53, who served in the Army from 1977 to 1983. “A whole lot has gone wrong in my life – crack, drinking, prison, living on the street, parents passed, you name it.

“But the fellowship I have from the military, vets understanding what vets go through – that is my family, man.”

Word of Veterans Commons spread so fast that more than 400 vets applied for apartments – about a third of the city’s estimated total homeless veteran population.

William Brown, 63, an Army veteran of Vietnam, was on that waiting list with his pal Jones, a fellow convert to sobriety at a veterans rehab program on Treasure Island. But this week he was told he didn’t qualify because his combination of Social Security and veterans disability checks took him just above the impoverished income threshold.

He’s now headed for a different veterans-oriented complex in San Bruno, using federal housing subsidies – but he plans to keep his bonds with his buddies at Veterans Commons. He knows now, better than ever after his first full two sober years since his honorable discharge in 1974, that the mutual support is crucial.

“I really wanted to move in there,” he said. “I’m worried I might fall back into old bad habits if I’m not surrounded by friendly vets.”

Paying 30% of income

For rent, residents of Veterans Commons will pay 30 percent of their income, which is usually government disability or subsidy checks.

Similar supportive housing programs have proved effective, according to studies by the U.S. Veterans Administration. With the help of on-site counseling, more than 85 percent of residents wind up successfully staying in their units for a year or more.

Hedtke is sure he’ll hit that mark.

Growing up in Lafayette, he started drinking as a youth, so the problem is ancient for him. Though he kept his boozing under enough control to be a successful air traffic controller during his hitch in the Air Force, it all began to unravel after his service.

The drinking grew chronic, and he finally crashed in the mid-’90s. It had been episodic jobs and bottomless bottles since then – until that day on the dunes.

“I guess something turns when you get to your 50s,” Hedtke said. “It hurts more. You finally wake up.”

Open house

Veterans Commons will have an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday, Veterans Day.

Donations, such as small flat-screen televisions, gift cards or grooming products will be accepted. Large items such as furniture cannot be accepted.

The complex is at 150 Otis St. For more information go to: