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Casa de Flores expands veterans housing into new single-family home

Santa Maria Times - 1/24/2021

Jan. 24—Lompoc resident Elijah Enriquez needed a new place to live because he felt he needed to sleep with a gun under his pillow. He found refuge at Casa de Flores, a home for veterans that is being expanded in Santa Maria.

Enriquez, 29, and his family will soon be moving into a new house built on the crumbling foundation of a 100-year-old home on Casa de Flores property at 400 W. Church St. The construction expands the capacity of Casa de Flores, which now houses 13 veterans and is a dream conceived and ultimately realized by Rogelio Flores, a retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge and Fred Pratt, a retired Army helicopter pilot.

Construction of the new single-family three-bedroom, two-story annex is nearly complete, and will provide a sanctuary for Enriquez, his wife, Violet, and their two small children.

While Enriquez wasn't experiencing homelessness, the move will allow him to be closer to the Echo Group, informally known as the Band of Brothers, a nonprofit composed of military veterans who help other veterans.

"We have a Band of Brothers in Lompoc, but it's not as unified," Enriquez said. "I've been wanting to get more involved and would like to give back more like all of the other veterans who come here and give back."

The new house is a separate structure located on the same property as the main Casa de Flores home, a Victorian house that provides a male-only stable living environment for homeless or near-homeless veterans. Up to 150 veterans are experiencing homelessness in Santa Barbara County on any given night, according to Kimberlee Albers, a homeless assistance program manager for Santa Barbara County.

For Violet Enriquez, the environment feels similar to living in base housing at Fort Bliss, Texas, where her husband was stationed as a diesel mechanic with the 1st Armored Division, 2nd Brigade.

Many of the people they lived near on base served with her husband in the same unit.

"I'm excited just to be closer to people I feel comfortable with," Violet Enriquez said. "There's a sense of safety and anxiety levels are low."

Additional housing at Camp Flores was part of the project's initial plan, according to Echo Group CEO Steve Baird, who said that construction for the new home began in January 2020.

Baird credits Craig Rogneby, a Vietnam War-era Marine Corps veteran and one of Casa de Flores' original tenants, who is also the foreman for the construction project. Rogneby now lives in Santa Margarita but has made daily trips to Santa Maria.

As crews began dismantling the old structure for expansion, they realized it had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. The frame and the foundation, which was laid more than 100 years ago, couldn't be saved because they were out of code, according to Baird, who added that the community stepped up to help.

Baird is unsure of the dollar value, but much of the labor, building materials and the appliances were donated by members of the community, including veterans, staying faithful to the mission of vets helping vets.

He said he's relieved the house is nearly completed because Camp Flores was designed to be a more intimate, personalized recovery setting and construction disrupts that environment.

"The tenants have been living under remodel after remodel and I'm looking forward to just getting done," Baird said. "I'm not sure what else is going on in the world these days, but Casa de Flores is leading the way for housing homeless veterans."

Some of the features of the house include a large space that will be converted into a game and exercise room for residents of Camp Flores and an orange tree that's next to the home's second story balcony. The building itself matches the light green color of the main Camp Flores house.

Additionally, Baird is aiming for a second Santa Maria Valley Beautiful Award, which is given to properties that promote beautification in the Valley. The day-to-day landscaping work is completed by Camp Flores residents.

The new home still needs to be certified for occupancy and should be ready by next week, followed by a grand opening sometime in the future, according to Baird.


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