Some California Cities See End in Sight for Veteran Homelessness

Marine veteran Mitchell Horton had been chronically homeless since 1988 until last year when he was granted an efficiency apartment in downtown Santa Cruz. He now works as a security guard. Photo by Lynn Graebner
Marine veteran Mitchell Horton had been chronically homeless since 1988 until last year when he was granted an efficiency apartment in downtown Santa Cruz. He now works as a security guard. Photo by Lynn Graebner

Cities across California have committed themselves to what sounds like an impossible goal: ending homelessness among military veterans by the end of this year.

More than 25 cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Cruz, have joined a federal campaign known as the “Mayor’s Challenge” to house every homeless vet.

Some admit they probably won’t meet that deadline. But with this national goal setting combined with new federal state and local resources, some cities project that within a few years they could achieve a functional zero level of homeless vets, meaning they’d have the resources to house any homeless vet within 30 days.

There has already been significant progress. Homelessness among vets in California has decreased 33 percent since release of the 2010 Opening Doors federal plan to end homelessness, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress (AHAR).

That plan adopted the “housing first” model – starting with permanent housing with supportive services rather than requiring people to first complete recovery programs or demonstrate “housing readiness.”

California cities play a key role in the success of the national challenge as they have almost 25 percent of the nearly 50,000 homeless vets nationwide.

Los Angeles, which has 3,739 homeless vets, twice the number of any other city in the country, is actually on track to meet the Mayor’s Challenge.

But Bay Area cities are having a much harder time of it with high rental rates, low housing inventory and landlords reluctant to accept renters who may be recovering from substance abuse, mental health or other issues.

Santa Cruz Mayor Don Lane said communities should jump on the federal government’s high level of commitment to ending veteran homelessness. But he doesn’t think his community can make the 2015 deadline.

“We went into this with our eyes open. But it’s really important to try because if we get only half way there, we’d really make a difference,” he said.

Coordinating efforts

Spearheaded by 180/2020, an initiative in Santa Cruz County to end chronic homelessness in the county by 2020, all four cities in the county are participating in the Mayor’s Challenge.

While the campaigns and deadlines may seem a bit contrived, changing names and goals from year to year,  they have helped focus civic and community leaders on the task.

For example, 180/2020 is participating in another national campaign called Zero:2016 by nonprofit Community Solutions, which is helping U.S. communities end veteran and chronic homelessness by 2016.

And that effort is a follow-on to The 100,000 Homes Campaign which challenged U.S. communities to house 100,000 of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals in four years by July 2014. Nearly 200 U.S. communities succeeded in housing more than 105,000 homeless.

“Our experience with 100,000 Homes was really breathtaking. There was so much innovation and support,” said Phil Kramer, Director of 180/2020, which coordinated the housing of more than 200 people.

Community Solutions is now working with federal agencies to help U.S. cities create coordinated systems tracking every homeless person by their name and needs as well as the housing stock to match them to.
Last year this system was expanded to all eight regions of Los Angeles County.

“The average person would have assumed that was already the approach,” said Christine Marge, vice president of Community Impact for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. United Way co-founded Home for Good, a 200-organization initiative to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year and chronic homelessness in L.A. County by the end of 2016.

In 2010, Home for Good reported the county was spending $875 million on the homeless in L.A. County, including emergency room visits and law enforcement. That prompted the 2011 founding of the Home for Good Funders Collaborative, a group of foundations, businesses and government agencies, which in 2013 raised $213 million in public and private resources.

“We were blown away by what happened,” Marge said. “We had never all sat down and made a commitment to jointly invest our resources in solutions that work.”

Over the last four years Home for Good partners have housed more than 12,000 vets. They have about 6,400 to go, Marge said.

Santa Cruz also has a high level of cooperation among those who serve the  homeless. Every Wednesday at the Veterans Building in Santa Cruz, agencies specializing in health care, mental health services, food, housing, employment and other services gather to serve veterans.

Gabier Gomez, a 57-year-old, served six years in the Army and had been homeless for almost five years. After losing his wife and his job he gave up on life. He went to the Santa Cruz Veterans Building for lunch one day and filled out a housing application but said he never expected anything to come of it. Two months later he got a lease for an apartment he loves in Watsonville.

Federal Funding

Finding housing for vets is a huge step but often helping them stay housed is just as challenging. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program (SSVF) launched in 2011 to rapidly rehouse vets and their families. The money can be used for paying things like a utility bill or a month’s rent.

“SSVF is just a godsend,” said Kate Severin, Chief Domiciliary Services at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.

SSVF helped Mitchel Horton get back on his feet. A 56-year-old former Marine, Horton said he had been chronically homeless, in and out of housing since 1988 due to drug and alcohol abuse. He came to Santa Cruz after hearing about its one-stop-shop approach.

The SSFV money helped him with initial rent, car repairs, fees and equipment to become a security guard for First Alarm Security Services. He has a subsidized federal veteran housing voucher and pays $865 a month for an efficiency apartment downtown.

“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “It’s the first place I’ve had a lease in my name. It feels good. It feels like home.”

Lack of Willing Landlords

Despite the appeal of guaranteed rent that comes with the federal housing vouchers, landlords are often leery to rent to tenants who may have a history of substance abuse or behavioral issues due to post traumatic stress disorder. And those vouchers don’t go very far in San Francisco, and Santa Cruz where landlords can easily collect more than $2,000 per month for one-bedroom apartments.

“The biggest reason we’ve not been able to end homelessness is we do not have enough landlords willing to rent to our vets,” Severin said.

Her organization will shortly be rolling out its Housing Heroes Just One Campaign appealing to landlords to set aside just one unit for veterans.

The Home for Good initiative is exploring creating a loan program for landlords to access low-interest loans for repairs to their units. And a couple of nonprofit partners offer landlords 24/7 call lines for dealing with tenant issues, Marge said.

Cities and nonprofits build vet housing

San Francisco homeless providers are creating their own housing. In 2012 the Chinatown Community Development Center partnered with Swords to Plowshares, a veterans advocacy organization, to convert a former county juvenile court building into 75 units with on-site supportive services for homeless veterans.

And late last year Swords partnered with the City and County of San Francisco, the VA and HUD to convert the former Stanford Hotel at 250 Kerny St. into 130 units for homeless vets.

But San Francisco is still about 1,300 beds short of housing all its homeless vets, said Leon Winston, chief operation officer and housing director for Swords. Meeting the Mayor’s Challenge is not feasible this year, he said.

One of the biggest new resources to create housing is California Proposition 41, which passed in June providing $600 million in bonds for multifamily housing for low-income and homeless veterans.

“Many developers are looking at housing for vets because there’s a funding stream now,” Winston said.

Whether or not San Francisco will get to functional zero depends on funding for vet programs and changes in federal administrations, he said.

“But the ground is seeded much better than it was, it’s a million times different than Vietnam,” Winston said. “We’re catching vets earlier to avoid another catastrophe like that.”

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