Food quality, sanitation at Veterans Village of San Diego

Staff and residents at Veterans Village of San Diego said the nonprofit’s rehab center has not provided appropriate food and is struggling to keep the facilities clean and sanitary.

They shared photos and videos of expired food, unhealthy meals, clogged toilets, dirty bathrooms and cockroaches inside the residential drug and alcohol treatment center.

Why this matters

Veterans Village of San Diego provides meals to residents in its rehab program to aid in their recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Clients who enter the program have experienced homelessness, and some of them do not have the resources to acquire their own meals outside the treatment center.

An newsource investigation has found that there has been a growing presence of illicit substances inside the renowned 224-bed rehab center, which poses a risk to vulnerable residents trying to recover from addiction.

Conditions have also deteriorated in the bathrooms and the kitchens over time, according to clients and employees.

“Back in the day, you definitely left this place fat,” said former resident Josh Margetts with a laugh. “They fed us very well.”

Margetts has stayed in the rehab center five times since 2000. When he returned this year, he noticed a big difference.

A meal provided in the mess hall at the Veterans Village of San Diego rehab center in March 2022. Photo taken by a Veterans Village resident.

“The food here pretty much sucks,” he said.

Margetts left the treatment program in May. In the weeks before his departure, he said the food quality improved substantially because a new cook was hired, but it’s “not the same as before.”

The mess hall has been a point of pride for Veterans Village for decades. Residents were offered healthy and full meals to help their bodies and minds heal from addiction, and they were provided a community space to socialize with their fellow veterans.

Some residents at Veterans Village have little to no income benefits — in particular, recent arrivals who have not received VA yet — leaving them few options but to eat the food provided on campus.

Former kitchen manager Greg Khosharian, who started his job in late 2017, said management has been trying to cut costs in the kitchen for years.

In 2018, Khosharian said he was told to switch from serving hot morning meals to continental breakfasts. And over time, he had to reduce the food options available and scale back portions to the point where clients were sometimes still hungry when they finished eating.

The transition had a noticeable impact on the residents, he said.

“The morale went down,” Khosharian said, adding, “A lot of them didn’t even have the motivation to want to come in.”

A meal provided in the mess hall at the Veterans Village of San Diego rehab center in March 2022. Photo taken by a Veterans Village resident.

The COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges for the mess hall. Staff called out sick when the kitchen was already operating on a small staff, and residents were prevented from volunteering to reduce the spread of infection.

Khosharian resigned in December 2020. In the months after he left, other employees sent him photos of the meals served to residents, he said, and he couldn’t believe how much the quality had declined.

Khosharian reapplied for his old job hoping he could help, he said, but he wasn’t selected for the position.

A meal provided to a resident at the Veterans Village of San Diego campus in January 2022. Photo provided by a resident.

Veterans Village leadership did not respond to emailed questions about food and sanitation at the treatment center.

Photos sent to newsource show a meal at Veterans Village could consist of a chicken tender with a small scoop of pea pods or a slice of bread and peanut butter with chips. Some meals were almost entirely made of starches, like a baked potato served with pasta.

Resident Victoria Cloyes, who came to Veterans Village in February, said she has been served expired food in the rehab center. She was offered a meal with spoiled cheese, she said, and asked to pick up lunches for a group trip that would have been eaten six days after they were prepared.

“The quality of food that was being served to these poor veterans and the MediCal patients was so poor, it was embarrassing,” she said. “And I would push it to say it was cruel.”

Cloyes, a registered nurse and combat veteran, said she almost immediately noticed health hazards when she arrived at Veterans Village, including foul smells in the bathroom, overflowing drains and clogged toilets.

After finding dried feces and urine on the bathroom floors, Cloyes said she decided to clean them herself.

A leaking sink in the laundry room at Veterans Village of San Diego is shown on Apr. 29, 2022. (Courtesy of Victoria Cloyes)

“I could not walk past… and not at least get in there and get some freaking bleach in there to stop the spread of infection,” she said.

Cloyes filed a complaint with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration about unsanitary restrooms in the kitchen and overflowing toilets. The agency required Veterans Village to respond to the concerns in 14 days.

Soon after, the bathrooms in the mess hall were closed off with caution tape.

Another OSHA complaint was filed by a former employee who claimed the nonprofit failed to notify her when her COVID-19 test came back positive.

Veterans Village was founded in 1981 by five Vietnam veterans who wanted to create a community for people to process the events of war and tackle their addiction together.

Cloyes said she supports the mission of the organization and hopes speaking out about her concerns will help improve the conditions for residents.

“The biggest thing is how do we preserve this place, right?” she said. “How do we save it? ‘Cause it is kind of a special place, and the men that established it are what we all call Mavericks.”

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