Before the sun rises, Jose tidies his apartment, sips coffee, or occasionally watches the early news to find out what’s going on in the world.
The 63-year-old veteran is a morning person, a habit formed during his time in the Army. Or maybe it was the result of his structured schedule in prison.
It may be a remnant of his exhausting hypervigilance while living on the streets of Los Angeles, where each day was a battle against the chaotic exposure to substance use and crime.
That changed when he called 2-1-1 and was directed to Volunteers of America Los Angeles (VOALA). They connected Jose to their Veterans Peer Access Network (VPAN) program, which helps veterans and their families access shelter, food, health care, job training, housing assistance, treatment for substance use and mental health disorders, and numerous other services.
Now Jose wakes up early because he’s excited to start the new day. “I can’t live without being busy. By 6 a.m., I’ve usually done more than most people,” he says.
Randall, Jose’s Peer Support Specialist, wholeheartedly agrees.
“Jose is always ready to share his experiences so veterans can see what’s possible when they decide to improve their lives the way he has,” Randall says.
“I told my Peer Support Specialist, I want to do what you’re doing,” Jose says.
Wherever Jose is in his community, he constantly spreads the word about how VOALA and VPAN can help.
“I take the train to different places, looking for an opportunity to help other veterans who are homeless. I tell them if I can do it, you can do it, too,” Jose says.
Not that long ago, Jose’s life was different. After countless years of homelessness and living on the street, he was ready for a change. “I met someone who had been living on the street like me, and I could see how happy he was after he got help. He had an apartment and his life was so much better,” Jose says.
“I decided it was time to get help the way he did. I dialed 2-1-1 last year and got connected to VOALA. They gave me a bed and helped me out. I almost cried. I’ve learned to do things the right way.”
Whatever challenges he faced in the past he put on himself – and many of those poor choices had serious consequences, Jose explains. “I went to prison because of my actions and I became more and more separated from my family.”
His siblings live in Puerto Rico where he grew up, the fourth of five children. Their father served 20 years in the military. His deployments included Korea and two tours in Vietnam, Jose says. Two of his brothers also served.
“I know my behavior has caused them to feel uncomfortable. They don’t trust me. It took me a while to understand that,” he says.
That separation hurts, but he is embracing the opportunity to make things right. He looks forward to the future when his family will be ready for a reunion. “I just don’t want to leave this earth without seeing them one more time,” he says.
Meanwhile, Jose says he will continue his work to make positive, constructive decisions and keep himself busy. “During the past year, I changed my behavior. I understand I need to follow the rules,” he says.
Then a miracle happened this past March.
A stray tear escapes from the corner of Jose’s eye as he tells the story. He had been off the streets and living in a shelter for a while when he received a call from his case manager.
“He told me to meet him at a certain place, so I went there on the bus. When I got there, he took me to an apartment. I thought that’s nice. It’s an apartment. Why are we here?
“Then he handed me the keys and said, ‘This is yours.’ I couldn’t believe it. After living for years on the streets with drugs and crime – now this!”
“If you were to walk into my apartment now, you’d see a computer with a printer and a TV. Before this, those things wouldn’t be there. It’s not because material things are important. It’s that they are symbols of the changes I’ve made to my life,” he says.
“I think of life as sort of a Christmas tree with gifts underneath. For the past 20 years, I have missed seeing those gifts under the tree. God looks over us. He puts the gifts there and waits for you. The gifts were mine the whole time, but I just wasn’t there to receive them,” Jose says.
“That motivated me to try to figure out how to give back what I received. Because I see what’s possible.”
Jose has successfully completed the VPAN program and is now hoping to become a Peer Support Specialist.
It doesn’t stop there. As a resident of the Second District of Los Angeles County, he has recently been nominated Veteran of the Year. Jose’s future looks brighter with each day.
And when he is out on the streets and someone asks about getting help, Jose has a plan.
“I will call 2-1-1 and hand them my phone so they can talk to someone,” he says. “Then I’ll take them on a bus to where they need to go. I’ll tell them everything VOALA and VPAN have done for me, they will do for you.”
“Then I’d say, ‘You can make your future happen.’”
For more information on VOALA veteran programs and other programs visit: https://voala.org
VOALA has been connected to the Los Angeles and Orange County community for over 125 years. We focus our efforts on people of all ages who need assistance improving their quality of life, from those facing new hardships to those enduring a lifetime of adversity. We combine deep compassion, highly effective programs, and an unshakable belief in each person’s innate health and strength. And, we believe all people have the potential to make positive choices that move them toward an empowered future, promote self-sufficiency, and foster independence.