A new home for veterans in Santa Maria is more than a place where those in need can find a place to sleep and a warm meal. They can find a family.

Last month, Camp Flores, also known as La Casa de Flores, opened its doors as a safe place for veterans who are looking to change their lives.

The three-bedroom facility, located at 400 W. Church St. in downtown Santa Maria, is home to five veterans.

“It is really, truly the first home of its type," said Steven Baird, Camp Flores operations manager. "It is run by veterans for veterans. It is not just a home where you go and lay your head. It is really about joining a family.”

An inspired plan

The home was inspired by Superior Court Judge Rogelio Flores and his work to support local veterans in need.

In 2011, he created the Veterans Treatment Court of Santa Maria with the goal of serving justice-involved veterans struggling with addiction, serious mental illness and other issues.

The program promotes sobriety, recovery and stability through a coordinated response that involves cooperation and collaboration with the traditional partners found in drug and mental health courts. Other partners include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care networks, the Veterans Benefits Administration and volunteer veteran mentors and veterans' family support organizations.

The veterans court has helped many receive help and services they need as an alternative to incarceration. The program also has inspired some of those it has touched to do more for their fellow vets.

Fred Pratt, a veteran mentor, led the charge to create Camp Flores.

Once he found a suitable location, he and Baird began the work to create the structure of the program.

“I went through veterans court,” Baird said. “Judge Flores said his dream was to someday open up a home so homeless vets can get stable housing.”

Several of Camp Flores’ first residents have also been through veterans court.

An all-in approach

“We are the hub. We are plugged into all the resources. We give them the best possibility of success. It is not just a house, it is a whole life transformation that is available to them,” Baird said.

Baird, a Marine veteran, also was instrumental in forming the local group Band of Brothers and Echo Group, which supports veterans with a focus on sports and staying active.

“We have more than 100 veterans playing ball on Friday night in Santa Maria and Lompoc,” Baird said.

Air Force veteran and resident Kris Aros called Camp Flores a blessing.

“This is my home. I love this place," he said. "I stand for the American flag that is flying in our front yard. I am a vet, a Band of Brother. This is a safe place for us veterans to come together, help each other out and be there for each other.” 

Kevin Kleinsteuber, a Camp Flores resident and Army veteran, said the home was a safe zone.

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“It gives me a purpose and a place to be and a responsibility. This is a quiet and nice place to be,” he said.

Just knock on the door

Though some residents have come from the Veterans Treatment Court of Santa Maria, Baird said Camp Flores has and will continue to do its own outreach.

“We’ve gone out and found veterans," said Baird, adding the subject is a delicate one for many veterans, with an element of mistrust mixed in. "We found a couple pushing shopping carts, took them lunch and talked to them about coming in. There are reasons why they are out there.”

There is a fee to live at Camp Flores. The program charges rent to help meet its expenses and provide for its residents. Organizers said charging rent also gives its veterans something to work for, as they help veterans find employment, as well.

“Some of us get services from other organizations that help us pay rent,” Aros explained.

Any veteran seeking help only has to knock on Camp Flores’ front door, Baird said, and they will receive a meal, shower, anything they need. 

“We want this place to be a place of healing, stability and growth," said Baird, adding the No. 1 goal is to make sure veterans are honorably discharged since that is an indication of service to country. "Then they go on and may be come back and mentor someone new that has come in.”

Anyone wishing to help Camp Flores can also just come to the front door.

Food donations are always welcomed, Baird said, along with cleaning supplies, laundry soap and any services -- haircuts, oil changes, etc. 

For more information, or to give or seek help, email Baird at steve@echovets.org.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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