No More Homeless Vets

USF’s Leon Winston ’03, MNA ’05 is a driving force behind a San Francisco success story

By Arvin Temkar Posted Mon, 08/13/2018 - 10:22

Leon Winston ’03, MNA ’05 arrived at Swords to Plowshares — a Bay Area nonprofit that serves homeless veterans — as a client, fresh out of rehab and in need of housing. 

That was 1992. Today he’s the nonprofit’s chief operating officer and housing director, overseeing a $20 million budget and numerous housing development projects. Armed with decades of experience and a USF master’s degree in nonprofit administration, he’s helped build the organization from 35 employees to more than 200. 

Swords to Plowshares works with local government, nonprofits, and co-developers to create apartment complexes that provide supportive rehabilitation services to chronically homeless vets. The nonprofit and its partners have nearly eliminated chronic homelessness among veterans in San Francisco and become a national model of success.

Winston spoke to USF News about his work and homelessness in San Francisco.

How did you end up at Swords to Plowshares?
I’ve been dealing with major depression since I was a teenager. I self-medicated for much of my adult life. In my 30s, after the Navy and a few years working in finance, I co-owned a club in Los Angeles. The business went under. Afterward, I ended up living in my car and turning again to drugs.

When the car was impounded I returned to San Francisco, where I’m from and have family. I was admitted into the VA hospital’s inpatient rehabilitation program. They ultimately referred me to Swords to Plowshares.

Why did you start working there?
I spent about 11 months in the transitional housing program at Swords to Plowshares, and got another job in finance to get back on my feet. I realized I really hated that, and I needed to do something that had some meaning for me if I was to maintain my recovery. I gave my resume to the man who was housing director at Swords to Plowshares, and I was hired as an administrative assistant.

What brought you to USF?
After seven years at Swords to Plowshares, I was promoted to deputy director of the agency. Most of our funding was through government grants. I thought I could really add value to the agency by earning my bachelor’s degree in public administration, and then studying nonprofit administration after that. USF’s School of Management had a bachelor’s completion program in public administration and the only Master of Nonprofit Administration program in the Bay Area.

How much of San Francisco’s homeless population is veterans?
Chronically homeless veterans were 15.5 percent of San Francisco’s chronic population in 2011. At last count, in 2017, that had dropped to 5.9 percent — or fewer than 140 individuals.  We are very close to being able to functionally end chronic veteran homelessness here.

The proven solution is our model of permanent supportive housing — building veteran-specific housing complexes that have on-site support services. Since 2000, we’ve built or developed more than 200 units, and we operate an additional 150 units in buildings that we lease. We have two more buildings in development. 

In San Francisco, we see homelessness every day. What can a person do to help?
Vote. Resist dehumanizing and blaming the homeless.  

Homelessness became a major issue in this country in the 1980s when two things happened: First, there were sharp reductions in funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, resulting in a steep decline in the creation of affordable housing. Second, many psychiatric hospitals were shut down — but the community resources necessary to receive the de-institutionalized mentally ill never materialized. Our jails and streets have become the mental health institutions for the poor. 

So, what we can do is be 'woke' and live USF's Jesuit principals by sharing, by pursuing social justice, and by having real concern for the poor and marginalized. 

Know someone with a powerful USF story? Let us know! usfnews@usfca.edu Twitter @usfcanews