On a rainy Wednesday morning, Ryan Palmquist walked into the tidy two-bedroom apartment he shares with three other men in north Bakersfield and apologized for the mess.
"I don't know why we have a trash bag on the floor," he said, picking up the empty bag and throwing it away.
Just talking to the easygoing 32-year-old, it'd be tough to guess that Palmquist, a four-year veteran of the Air Force, is coming out of a hellish eight years spent struggling with meth addiction.
The friends with whom he'd "dabbled in drugs" before joining the military at age 19 had progressed in their drug usage by the time he got home in 2002, and without the structure of military life, he eventually fell back into old habits -- hard.
"Unfortunately, the best times in the last eight years were when I was locked up," he said, because at least it was a stable lifestyle.
Since June, though, Palmquist said he's found a much better kind of stability, living alongside other homeless or at-risk veterans in one of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation's five transitional housing facilities and getting his life back on a path he's happy with.
CVAF is a local nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans of all ages through its 51-bed transitional housing program, as well as a resource and referral office located in the same building as the Kern County Veterans Service Department.
"I love it," Palmquist said of the grant and donation-funded housing program, which provides struggling veterans with beds, food, education and healthcare for up to 24 months. "They've saved my life."
But program staff -- including foundation President Debbie Johnson, also a veteran who served in Desert Storm -- are adamant that the program really just helps men like Palmquist help themselves.
"It's giving people structure," that she said will "carry over way long after they leave the program."
Starting this year, Johnson has also taken on the duty of running the annual Kern County Veterans Stand Down event on Oct. 13 that will give veterans an opportunity to receive various on-the-spot services or be referred to others, like CVAF's housing program.
CVAF Operations Director Heather Kimmel estimated about 10 referrals came from last year's Stand Down.
And as of just before the Oct. 5 deadline, CVAF case manager and Air Force veteran Ron Hernandez said 50 veterans had registered for Veterans Court, where they can take care of small misdemeanors or outstanding traffic tickets -- which can be a surprisingly large barrier to employment, particularly if they result in the revocation of a driver's license.
More than that, the event raises public awareness not only of homeless veterans, but also of the homeless population in general, of which veterans make up about 30 percent nationwide, said Chuck Bikakis, director of the county veterans services department.
Bikakis, who started Kern's Stand Down in 1999, said the event also highlights the community's "giving spirit."
He added that homeless veterans referred to CVAF's transition program are being referred to a type of program that even "a lot of larger communities don't have," and that Johnson's focus on teaching veterans skills they need to make it outside the CVAF program really stands out.
This means everyone at CVAF, including the residents, who just months ago would've been the Stand Down's target audience, will be helping with the event.
Wednesday, Kimmel presided over the CVAF mandatory biweekly town hall, which gives the men a chance to voice concerns they have with the program, in addition to getting them all in one place so staff can make announcements. According to Johnson, having that kind of forum aims to give residents "greater self-determination."
Kimmel told the men that volunteering to work security at the Stand Down would count toward their community service hour requirements.
Timothy Thomas, an Army veteran in his 50s, volunteered to shuttle residents to Stramler Park, where the Stand Down will take place. Thomas, who has a grizzly red beard and glasses, seems mild-mannered. He speaks softly, even when admitting that this is his third go-around living in the CVAF program.
"Last time I was here, I was a little hot-headed," he said.
"We can see the potential," Johnson said, but "you can't live their life for them."
Sometimes, she said, men will have to re-enter the program.
Thomas stayed previously for several months in 2007 and from December 2009 to November 2010.
Thomas said he had been addicted to drugs for much of his life and he was particularly affected by his mother's death in 2008. It wasn't until after a recent hospital stint for heart trouble that it finally clicked: His lifestyle wasn't working.
"My feet are numb, my hands tingle, I have Type I diabetes," he said. "Here, I feel safe and comfortable."
Thomas said he plans to take his Social Security and live quietly with his dog in his own apartment.
Dennis Madrid, a successful graduate of the program who is now a case manager for CVAF, said he also could've taken his Social Security and retired.
But he wanted to give back.
"It's challenging, sometimes," he said while driving a van full of donated clothes for the Stand Down from one CVAF facility to another. "It's fulfilling -- it's, I don't know what the word is ... "
Program resident Paul Gause chimed in from the back seat.
"Rewarding," he said.