Doors open for those who served

When Kendra Stewardson returned to San Francisco from her post as a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam, she — like many veterans — hoped for a hero’s welcome.

Instead, she was refused a disability pension, and taking care of her terminally ill mother left her penniless — and eventually homeless.

“I looked in my checking account and said, ‘Girl, you’d better buy a sleeping bag,’” she said.

After 18 months sleeping on city sidewalks, Stewardson walked through the doors of Project Homeless Connect, founded by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration in 2004, and within hours she was in a hotel room. Since then, she has qualified for veteran’s disability; like many vets, she also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today, Project Homeless Connect is launching a new one-stop shop in San Francisco’s War Memorial Building that caters specifically to The City’s homeless-veteran population — roughly 2,100 people, according to the center.

That news comes on the heels of an announcement Tuesday that San Francisco will receive $1.5 million in federal funding to provide 105 housing vouchers for local homeless veterans and their families.

“This is the real stuff that leads to homeless people getting housing — and beginning to lead productive lives,” Dariush Kayhan, Newsom’s homelessness adviser, said during a news conference Wednesday.

The United States government has focused intensive funds on the homeless — including veterans — in the past 10 years, according to Philip Mangano, who leads the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness. Since then, the number of homeless veterans has dropped from 250,000 to 143,000, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Newsom said. “The mission is not accomplished, in this case.”

The local funding is part of a $75 million national release of funds that will provide 10,000 vouchers. The San Francisco VA Medical Center will handle the wait list and intake process, and determine eligibility. Once a veteran finds housing, the San Francisco Housing Authority will inspect the unit and help negotiate the lease.

While officials Tuesday acknowledged that the vouchers would help just a fraction of San Francisco’s homeless veterans, many said the success of the initial funding should help them get future federal funding.

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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