Homeless veteran numbers are down, and a veterans housing assistance program picks up steam
Half of the 274 homeless veterans counted in Santa Cruz County earlier this year fought in the Vietnam War. The same proportion has no more than a car or sidewalk as their bed at any given time.
Forty years after returning from combat in the United States' second longest war, these veterans are being joined on the streets by soldiers returning from the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soldiers coming home from tours in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom account for 30 percent of the homeless veterans in the county, according to the 2011 Santa Cruz County Homeless Census and Survey.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program, though, is making a dent in this persistent problem. It has helped 60 single veterans and veterans with families to move into rentals in the area since 2009. Because of the success of the program, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has committed an additional $280,000 to their annual commitment in the county, according to Ken Cole, executive director of the Housing Authority of Santa Cruz County (HASCC). The new funds will begin coming in October and will provide up to $900 in monthly assistance to 25 vets who now have no permanent residence.
“It's one of the few good news stories in housing,” says Cole. “That brings us to 85 vouchers we have operating in this county.”
Vets and their families are required to pay 30 percent of their income to rent, and the voucher covers the rest. This limits the size and quality of the housing they move into, creating a system that encourages them to find work and graduate out of the program in time. The vouchers are then passed on to new applicants.
“Our society is a staircase, and most people want to move up to higher income and standard of living,” Cole says. “[While] in this program they are subsidized, but they are still locked down in a somewhat low income.”
Although the program has been a success for those it has helped, Bob Patton, president of the United Veterans Council in Santa Cruz, says that people don't know how to access the help or even know it is available. Other than the Veterans Affairs center in Capitola, at 1350 41st Ave., the VA has a temporary office in the K building of the County Health Services Agency on Emeline Avenue in Santa Cruz. However, for a homeless veteran with no cell phone the office is not very helpful, according to Patton.
“If you go up to Emeline, there is no desk,” he says. “There is a phone on the wall, and if there is no one there you can leave a message for them to call you back.”
Despite his frustrations with the UVC itself being homeless, he has seen VASH work well for people who received the assistance. He tells one story of a vet who went from having serious alcohol and emotional issues to someone who pays their rent and bills and lives a good life, just a year later. He also stresses that no matter how hard help is to find, individuals also must take responsibility for their own lives.
Good Times was unable to contact any of these success stories because of strict confidentiality rules at both the VA and the HASCC. However, 46-year-old former army squad leader Mark Beckner, was at a Wednesday, Aug. 3 VASH information meeting in Capitola, and was happy to share how he ended up without a home.
He says he served tours in Stuttgart, Germany during the mid 1980s and eventually became a licensed contractor when he returned in his early twenties. Life was good he says, until his contracting business went under in 2009, and he began staying in his car. In late 2010 that shelter was impounded, and he was unable to rescue it as the fines quickly increased. Since that time he has been in and out of the River Street Shelter. When he is not able to get a bed at the shelter, he stays in encampments and hopes to use the showers at the Homeless Services Center next to the shelter. He has been anticipating the release of the additional 25 vouchers for months.
“I've been coming to these meetings for 10 weeks because I knew these were coming up,” he says. “Anyone who qualifies and shows up
on a Wednesday [in August], will be interviewed in September.”
Staff members at the VA clinic on 41st Avenue say they have seen an increase over the last year of veterans coming in for help with everything from housing assistance to medical exams. “Grant and Per Diem Liaison” is just one of the many titles listed on the business card of Kelly Conway from the Veterans Affairs of Palo Alto Health Care System. She says the past two years have marked a spike in the need for the most basic necessities such as housing, and the dormant economy has a lot to do with it, while helping coordinate the Aug. 3 meeting in Capitola.
The new set of vouchers will become available to those who need them in October after the interviewing process is complete, but she says there are other options available to vets on the streets.
“We have 80 transitional beds which are available for up to two years, but the closest ones are in Monterey as well as emergency beds ... available for up to nine months,” Conway says.
She is optimistic, pointing out that homelessness amongst veterans has dropped by almost 50 percent since 2009, according to HUD statistics, and is looking forward to adding another 25 people to the VASH programs.
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