Though created by state legislature in 1946, CalVet’s DNA can be traced back 135 years

(NOTE: This is the first in a series of stories that will detail the history, functions, and mission of the California Department of Veterans Affairs.)

The California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) has served California’s veteran population in a variety of ways since its creation by the California State Legislature in 1946. CalVet provides varying ranges of care at its eight Veterans Homes of California. It helps provide housing to veterans, including projects dedicated to helping veterans experiencing homelessness get off the streets. It offers competitive home loans with outstanding homeowners’ insurance to veterans. It helps them access their federal VA benefits, including the GI Bill. It advocates for women veterans, minority, underrepresented, and disabled veterans. And, it operates three state veterans cemeteries where veterans are interred at no cost.

Civil War veterans living at the Veterans Home in Yountville.
Civil War veterans living at the Veterans Home in Yountville.

But while the agency is now well into its eighth decade, the machinations that led to its formation began long before the California State Legislature voted to create CalVet, and Governor Earl Warren’s signature made it official.

CalVet’s DNA can be traced to the small Napa County community of Yountville where, in 1881, a small group of citizens saw the need to help aging Civil War and Mexican War veterans. They formed the Veterans Home Association and raised $17,750, acquired 910 acres, and began building what has become the Veterans Home of California-Yountville, now one of the nation’s largest veterans homes. It opened in 1884. In 1896, the federal government stopped funding privately-owned facilities; therefore the state purchased Yountville for a $10 gold coin in 1897. The Veterans Home Association continued to operate it until the state took control in 1899. It remains in operation today as the flagship of CalVet’s eight veterans homes throughout the state.

Following the Spanish American War and World War I, states including California began looking for ways to reward veterans for their service. California legislators opted to provide elements that included housing assistance, educational guidance, tax and fee breaks, and other state aid options. In 1921, the state established the Veterans Welfare Board to manage those and other programs, and also passed the veterans Farm and Home Purchase Act, enabling the state to provide low-interest loans for homes and farms to veterans.

The Administration Building at the Veterans Home in Yountville, circa 1886.
The Administration Building at the Veterans Home in Yountville, circa 1886.

As veterans’ needs grew, the legislature created the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs in 1929. Then came World War II, and, as it ended, California braced for a huge population boom, with thousands upon thousands of veterans needing even more services. So the state made two major changes in 1946. It created the California Department of Veterans Affairs to replace the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, with CalVet operating under the control of the state’s Consumer Services Agency. Lawrence Stevens became the first of 16 directors or secretaries who have led the department. Governor Jerry Brown appointed current Secretary Vito Imbasciani MD, in 2015.

In 1991, the state authorized CalVet to create more veterans homes, and voters in 2000 passed Proposition 16, which provided the $50 million needed to fund the new Veterans Homes of California in Redding, Fresno, Chula Vista, Barstow, Ventura, Lancaster, and West Los Angeles. In all, the eight veterans homes serve roughly 2,500 veterans and spouses.

Under Gov. Pete Wilson in 1994, CalVet obtained cabinet-level status, emerging from the oversight of what is now the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

The support for veterans by Californians has been nothing short of outstanding. In 2010, Operation Welcome Home committed $20 million toward outreach to all returning veterans to link them to the services they need. In 2014, they passed Proposition 41, authorizing $600 million to fund the development of affordable housing for veterans and their families. CalVet offers competitive rate home mortgage loans – more than 423,000 loans to date – a disabled veteran loan guarantee, and the lowest delinquency / foreclosure rate in the nation. And in November 2018, CalVet received $1 billion in bond authority to continue helping veterans become homeowners.

The Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention program (VHHP) assists in the development of housing for veterans. The California Transition Assistance Program (CalTAP) advocates for veterans and dependents when they use their GI Bill benefits.

CalVet continues to advocate on the behalf of women veterans, minority and underrepresented veterans, LGBTQ veterans, and disabled veterans.

We’ll be bringing you more about CalVet and its programs in the coming months.

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