For half a century, a group called Nation's Finest has been quietly assisting veterans, providing counseling, housing and other services across Northern California and western Nevada.
As the organization prepares to celebrate a milestone anniversary, it's also searching for potential sites to replicate an innovative community it built, housing formerly homeless veterans at the end of a Windsor cul-de-sac.
"It's a hard transition coming off the streets where you got to be on alert all the time. You never get proper sleep, you never have a proper diet, anything like that. You can't even find a bathroom anymore really, because they are all locked up," said Robert Sommer, now 62, who had been living on the streets of Petaluma for 28 years. After a stint in transitional housing, he found himself suddenly in a different world.
"So, coming here, it took a while to make the transition from having to keep my eyes open all the time. I still find myself living on the alert. I had that dream-like sensation too, like, this cannot be real, who is going to pull the carpet out, type of thing. But I feel more secure now, I don't, I don't feel, what the word, as anxious as I used to be. The security is nice. the feeling that you can lock the door is nice and feels safe, you don't feel that out on the streets," he added.
It's a huge step up. Robert's new home is fairly indistinguishable from other new construction across Sonoma County. Cheerful landscaping, large porch, full kitchen and bath, quartz countertops, all new appliances.
The nearly two-year-old development's overall design features clustered parking and communal spaces that encourage spontaneous interactions.
Anna Dunbar, the resident services coordinator, is works toward similar goals, with activities, art therapy classes and other types of counseling.
"My job is to create events and do so in such a consistent manner that we develop the sense of community. So, my entire goal here in collaboration with my boss and the company is to create a sense of positive community, because when that started, that wasn't here. It takes time, it takes trust, it takes safety. That community has to be built. It doesn't just occur spontaneously, and that's why permanent supportive housing is important, it's the supportive piece," Dunbar said.
She added that in most cases, emotional problems and trauma started long before people enlist, being in the service, and experiences afterwards can compound them.
"You're dealing with very complex trauma histories and a lot of high acuity cases so really, you are looking at things like severe depression, emotional abuse, whatever it is down the line and then that compounds throughout their lives," she said.
While still occasionally reluctant to participate, Sommer now attends sessions more regularly. And he said, it's helping him be less reactive.
"Well, I used to be, you know if you did something I didn't like, I'd just go off on you....and I don't do that anymore, I mean not go off to beat you up or anything, but just start, you know, I, I'm very good at yelling," he said.
The Windsor development is a mix of sizes and unit styles, community garden, basketball court, playground, adjacent preserve, pathways and barbecue areas. According to Chris Johnson, CEO of Nation's Finest, which designed and built the community with Southern California-based UCH, that was the point.
"You can see this was made to blend in a little bit more than an apartment complex would normally look. And, when we first started the construction design for this place, we also started the neighborhood interaction. We walked around, introduced ourselves. We just realized, this is their community, we're coming into it, and we wanted to blend---and then now they've benefitted because a lot of these folks here have become great friends," he said.
The results stand somewhat alone from the usual, Johnson said.
"Most of the ones that CAL-Vet, for example runs, are more like assisted living facilities. The reality is, (many don't need that level of care), they belong in a free space with somebody keeping an eye on them."
The organization is looking to replicate the successes here, elsewhere. Another development is underway at Mather Field in Sacramento, and Nation's Finest is applying for federal and state grants, raising money and looking for other locations throughout Northern California, including locally.
The independent living with support is an alternative for those not needing institutional care. For some, its what they need to thrive.
Now 80, Ken Gray admits he was a shell of a man when he arrived two years ago. Homeless for eight years, he avoided interactions. It took some time to adjust. Now, he's practically the village's unofficial mayor. Frustrated by a long walk to the nearest grocer, Ken and his neighbors did what any other neighbors would do, they organized--and pressured local politicians and public agencies.
"You'll see a shuttle bus going by. I got that. I'm not bragging, I'm just telling you. If you don't pursue these things, not going to happen. You have to go out and fight for everything you get," he said.
He said getting neighbors involved isn't always easy.
"When you get veterans, they have a tendency, especially homeless vets, that when they get a place, they become recluses. They stay in their place. They're perfectly happy to sleep in until ten or eleven o'clock because before, when you're on the street, you're lying in the mud, you got the rain, you got all that and it doesn't happen," he said.
Gray, whose father was killed on Iwo Jima when he was 15, lost his mother two years later and joined the Navy, servicing and helping launch planes on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. His wife's dementia led to him being out on the street.
Now, he looks forward to something he couldn't before, welcoming his grandchildren for visits at his own place, rather than a restaurant or park.
"I have a home now. I can bring them here. very important. Thanks to Nation's Finest, I'm here," Gray said.