If not for a chance encounter, Brian Houts might still be homeless. 

After living abroad for several years, the Navy veteran returned to California in January 2023 with little money in his pocket and no clear way to find a job or place to stay. He spent a month sneaking sleep at the airport and living out of his suitcase on the streets nearby.

One morning, a little more than a month later, he walked into a store with his rolling suitcase – and walked out with a chance to change his life.

“I went into a grocery store to buy a banana and water. I only had a dollar,” he said. “The guy in front of me had a U.S. Navy hat on and we started talking. He looked at me and my luggage and said, ‘Hey, are you homeless?’ and it turned out that he worked at Veterans Affairs.”

Houts met up with the man at the Veterans Affairs Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System campus in Westwood a few days later. There, he was provided with free transitional housing, vocational training and health benefits – none of which he had known were available to him. Just a few months after that, Houts was working at the VA Hospital, living on the VA campus in Westwood and making progress toward his goals of permanent housing and long-term employment.

Houts’ story is unique but not uncommon. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Annual Homeless Assessment Report showed that just over 30,000 veterans were unhoused, with a third of those living in California. But while there is much left to be done, national programs implemented by the VA have in fact seen homelessness rates decline steadily since 2010. At the VA campus in Westwood, where Houts receives his services, there are several programs in place to help veterans get back on their feet, including both temporary and permanent housing access and rehabilitation programs aimed at mental health, work therapy and legal assistance.

One such program, the Veterans Success Academy, offers training in communication and teamwork skills for job-seeking veterans. A partnership between UCLA Extension, the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and UCLA Veterans Initiatives and Partnerships, the eight-week program also teaches strategies for improving relationships with management, colleagues and customers, and on how to maintain a positive workplace environment. Participants also prepare resumes and do mock interviews to get ready for the hiring process.

Houts joined the Success Academy through the VA Vocational Rehabilitation Service’s compensated work therapy program, which provides employment and training opportunities to veterans. Many participants in the program come from homelessness, like Houts, or suffer from addiction or mental illness.

Houts has taken advantage of VA housing programs. 
“Our program’s goal is to aid in veteran recovery and reintroduction into the community,” said Peter J. Stigers, section chief of vocational rehabilitation at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. “Programs like the Success Academy help our veterans to stand out from the competition within the candidate pool.”

At first, Houts had little desire to attend Success Academy classes. He already had a college education and work experience and wasn’t sure the program would be helpful to him. But within one class, Houts was convinced.

“I didn’t look at my watch once,” he said. “Perry was a great teacher. I would take any class he taught.”

UCLA Extension instructor Perry Reynolds has been teaching Success Academy classes since it came to Westwood in the fall of 2019. Reynolds said he uses much of the same information he teaches in his other communications courses, with an additional focus on tactics to help veterans better present their skillset to a new audience. Many graduates cite his involvement as a reason why they stuck with the program.

Perry Reynolds, a Success Academy instructor, teaches a life skills course for veterans. 
“I have been so grateful to UCLA Extension,” said Daniel Martin, a 2019 graduate of the Success Academy and now employee of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.“ Meeting Perry changed my life. I now have more self-esteem and compassion and kindness than I have ever had, and it stems from making sure that I came to this class and that I graduated.”

Like Martin, Houts found value in the course, especially in its emphasis on practical skills. "I had never had a real interview in my life,” he said. “I didn’t even have a resume before Success Academy.” The Success Academy has so far graduated nearly 70 veterans in five cohorts. Most of the graduates have gained employment, according to Yuritzy Peraza, director of government and community relations at UCLA Extension and one of the creators of the program.“ We are so proud of all the graduates of Success Academy,” said Peraza. “The program started off small, as a workshop for community organizations, but when we had the opportunity to bring it to veterans, we knew we had something special."

The partnership forged by Success Academy has also opened the door for additional
collaboration between the VA and UCLA Extension. For example, in 2023 the VA opened three renovated residential buildings as long-term housing options for veterans, with priority given to those who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness. The influx of residents created an opportunity for UCLA Extension and the UCLA Veterans Initiatives and Partnerships team to develop new programs, including training and workshops for veterans held in one of the buildings’ community spaces.

Mark Ramseyer, an instructor and director of UCLA Extension’s Business, Management and Legal Programs, for example, created a three-class financial literacy workshop pilot program focused on budgeting, saving and debt management for the residents. During the workshops, Ramseyer and a guest speaker from University Credit Union answered questions and walked the veterans through budgeting, lending and banking basics. Several of the attendees didn’t have bank accounts, while others said they
struggled with online banking or understanding how different features worked.

“We want to help veterans find ways to accomplish the goals they set for themselves,” said Ramseyer.

Veterans living in VA housing also have access to other UCLA sponsored programs, such as a legal clinic and special events, through the Veterans Initiatives and Partnerships (VIP) team at UCLA.

“UCLA has a long-standing relationship with the VA – over 70 years,” said Anthony DeFrancesco, chief liaison and executive director for Veterans Initiatives and Partnerships at UCLA. “Our goal is to provide UCLA programs that help close the gap for veterans through education, like we see in the Success Academy, and one-on-one support from members of our VIP team.”

Juan Hernandez, director of Veterans Initiatives  and Partnerships at UCLA, serves as a liaison between the VA and the university.

“The services we provide here are more holistic, especially for the veterans who participate in various programs or have come from homelessness,” Hernandez said. “We are trying to figure out what types of courses they are interested in, what types of certifications they would like to have, what types of jobs they are looking for – we have so many resources that we can offer here to the veterans on campus.”

Houts says he may apply to work at UCLA once his work therapy position at the VA Hospital is finished, but his top choice would be to continue working at the VA, though likely in a different role.

“I like being at the VA,” he said. “I am helping my fellow veterans, so I feel good about
working here.”

As he comes up on a year in VA housing, Houts is looking toward the future. He is exploring the idea of moving out on his own or applying to be a resident in permanent housing at the VA. As for his immediate plans, he says he’s ready to try something new – starting with a Spanish class at UCLA Extension.

“Things are going well,” he said.

This article is adapted from the UCLAx magazine spring 2024 issue.