Ending veteran homelessness by year’s end may come at a cost

by @hayaelna March 17, 2015 5:00AM ET

The rush to house homeless veterans has made homeless youths and families a lower priority

After staying in the PATH Hollywood center for several months, John “Turtle” Snetselaar was able to move into an apartment using a HUD-Vash voucher.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

LOS ANGELES — The race to house every homeless veteran by the end of 2015 is raising concern among homeless advocates that meeting the deadline is becoming more important than doing it right.

Since Barack Obama’s administration set the ambitious goal of getting the estimated more than 50,000 homeless veterans in the U.S. off the streets, the rush to meet the challenge is leaving some wondering if it’s happening at the expense of homeless nonmilitary families and children.

At the same time, even homeless veterans say they’re being pushed into shelters and housing units that are bug-infested and too expensive for them, even with the help of HUD-VASH (Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers.

The two agencies doled out $13.5 million in rental housing assistance for 1,984 homeless vets this fiscal year and $62 million to assist more than 9,000 the previous year.

“We think we should be helping everyone, not just homeless veterans but families,” said Michael Stoops, director of community organizing at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

There are almost 600,000 people on the streets and in shelters, down 11 percent from 2007, but that count does not include homeless individuals crashing on people’s couches or sleeping in garages. Some federal agencies that use a broader count, including data from schools, report that child and family homelessness doubled in the last decade, to almost 1.3 million people.

The Obama administration is focusing on services for adults. The president’s Opening Doors plan promises to eliminate veteran homelessness by the end of December, chronic homelessness by 2016 and homelessness among children, families and youths by 2020.

“There’s no question that the focus on homeless veterans and homeless adults is the priority, and it has come at the expense of attention for children and for youths,” said Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “It’s clear in the appropriations requests, it’s clear in the budget, and it’s clear in the way local communities have been forced to prioritize their programs.”

In cities that have more homeless youths and families than homeless vets, the emphasis on veterans becomes disproportionate, she said.

Clothes on the floor of the apartment where formerly homeless veteran Benjamin Samual Wahl lives with his wife, Brandi Wahl. They don’t have enough money to do laundry. They lived at the PATH Hollywood center for many months while waiting for housing.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Duffield calls the federal goal to end homelessness a gimmick. “It’s more about appearances and a slogan than actually changing the reality,” she said.

Understandably, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans disagrees.

“Ending veteran homelessness has always been our priority,” said Baylee Crone, the executive director of the coalition. “We hope we can end veteran homelessness and learn from that experience, and I’m hopeful some of the gains can be applied to ending homelessness in other areas.”

Even if the goal to get every homeless veteran housed is reached, the challenge will be to keep them housed, she said.

“We like the deadlines, as long as there are resources out there,” said Joel John Roberts, chief executive of People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a Southern California organization with a network of homeless shelters and housing services, which gave out 1,100 HUD-VASH vouchers last year. “Our job is to house people. If the federal government wants to prioritize who gets housed first, my feeling is we just need to house them.”

The Homeless Children and Youth Act, a bipartisan bill designed to expand HUD’s definition of homelessness was recently introduced for the second consecutive year in both houses of Congress. It would force HUD to go by the same definition used by federal programs for low-income families and vulnerable minors and reduce the requirements for proving homelessness. 

“Are we really going to get every homeless veteran into housing?” Stoops asked. “Deadlines are OK, but all deadlines are meant to be broken.”

Stoops said that housing vouchers are great but that many homeless groups don’t have the resources to provide counseling and follow-up services. Agencies have adopted the housing-first philosophy of getting the homeless a roof over their heads and then worrying about medical or psychological care later.

“We found that when you put homeless in rapid rehousing without sufficient income, when time runs out, they’re back on the streets again,” Stoops said. “Sometimes, we’re setting people up for failure. There’s more that needs to be done than giving someone a key.”

Snetselaar and his service dog, a Jack Russell named Tobie.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Los Angeles has the most homeless veterans, with more than 3,700 estimated on the street any given night, according to a 2013 count. The results of a tally earlier this year will not be out until April, but they’re expected to show a decline.

John “Turtle” Snetselaar joined the Air Force in 1977 at age 17, mostly to escape an abusive father and what he describes as a dysfunctional family. He was honorably discharged 15 months later. Other than six years when he was married, he has spent more than three decades homeless.

Snetselaar said he suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He wandered the country with his service dog, a Jack Russell named Tobie, until he finally got some help in Eugene, Oregon, three years ago through a local charity. He filed for HUD-VASH and decided to head south to California, eventually ending up in Los Angeles at a PATH shelter.

He recounts a bad experience there — being separated from his dog, bedbugs, being fed food that he was allergic to. PATH said veterans’ complaints have been addressed but that some of the problems are inevitable in a homeless shelter.

On Nov. 1, Snetselaar’s 55th birthday, he was moved in to a small efficiency on the top floor of an old building in a heavily Latino part of the city near MacArthur Park.

“That’s great, but I can’t afford anything,” he said. “I got nothing.” He still has no furniture. He sleeps on the floor in a walk-in closet. A giant American flag doubles as a curtain over one window. The place is sparse but tidy.

He gets $736 a month in medical benefits from the VA. Almost half of that goes to pay his share of the rent. “I’m still waiting for furniture from AmVets,” he said. “I have no bed to sleep on.”

The wait is getting longer, and many other vets may be housed but are still sleeping on the floor. Snetselaar has been in Los Angeles for a year but just recently had his first visit from a therapist.

The challenge to house veterans here is huge because of the high cost of housing.

“It’s definitely getting harder,” Roberts said. “We housed 1,100 veterans last year. But the landlords willing to rent at HUD rates are less and less. It’s much more difficult than it was a year or two years ago.”

The building where Snetselaar lives.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

New VA Secretary Robert McDonald went to Los Angeles in January to participate in a homeless count on Skid Row. He took the reins of a department rocked by scandalous treatment of veterans (35 died while waiting for care at the Phoenix Veterans Health Administration), which led to the resignation of his immediate predecessor, Eric Shinseki.

Controversy followed McDonald to LA when he told a homeless vet he served in the military’s special forces. He didn’t, and he later made a public apology. Veterans’ groups were outraged. Despite this public relations debacle, he brought some hope that the VA would ease the city’s housing challenge.

The ACLU Foundation of Southern California and others sued the VA, charging that it was misusing its large West Los Angeles campus and failing to care for veterans. McDonald announced the end of the four-year legal battle through a settlement to create housing for veterans on the campus and to cut back leasing VA facilities to corporations and other private entities. The VA will appoint a national homelessness expert to draft a master plan for the 387-acre property with the help of an urban planner.

It’s set to be completed by October and will include long-term housing and support services to make sure that veterans, especially those with physical and mental disabilities, remain housed near the VA’s medical facilities.

The Los Angeles area’s homeless veteran population in 2013 was down 40 percent since 2010 but still a long way from meeting the goal of zero by the end of this year. “We still have work to do,” McDonald said. “We know we can’t achieve that goal unless we reach that goal in Los Angeles.”

Craig Joyce, a social worker at the VA in Los Angeles and a manager of the Enhanced Housing First program, says the challenge is “nerve-racking” but he is optimistic the goal will be met. He runs seven teams of 21 people each, using HUD-VASH assistance and case management and clinical services from the VA and working with community organizations to get vets off the streets.

“It does take a village to make things happen,” he said.

Homeless vets are being housed, but some may not have furniture. “These resources are for those veterans who are in great need,” said Rosemary Conn, the HUD-VASH coordinator for the VA.

AmVets and a grant from Pathways and the Hilton Foundation are helping with furniture. “This year alone, the Hilton grant will assist 300 vets with furniture,” she said. “The AmVets project will provide whatever they can. [Not] all the veterans going into housing … require furniture, and some have kept things in storage.”

PATH said veterans usually don’t have to wait for furniture for more than three weeks if they go through the necessary application process.

But four months later, Snetselaar is still waiting.

Ben Wahl in his building, where Snetselaar also lives.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America
Brandi Wahl displays the tattoo on her arm.
Anthony Suau for Al Jazeera America

Several cities have declared victory over veteran homelessness. Phoenix, Salt Lake City and New Orleans have all reported hitting the target, but they’re all cities with hundreds, not thousands of homeless vets.

“Here in Utah, we haven’t turned our resources away from families or youths or nonveterans,” said Elizabeth Buehler, the homeless services coordinator in Salt Lake City, where all chronically homeless veterans were housed last year. People who have been homeless for at least a year or have experienced at least four episodes of homelessness in the last three years and have a disability are considered chronically homeless.

“Now we’re working on lining up the system to get the nonchronic housed,” she said. “We expect 200 homeless veterans will need our help.” The welfare arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has provided furniture to all homeless people moving in to housing, she said.

The focus on veterans has not dried up resources for other homeless groups but actually has generated more money, she said. “I see this as new money,” Buehler said. “I don’t see it as taking money away from families.”

Atlanta set a 100-day challenge in March 2013 to house 100 veterans in 100 days and managed to house 130.

“I think the approach to ending veteran homelessness is important,” said Protip Biswas, the vice president of the United Way of Greater Atlanta’s regional commission on homelessness. “It changes the way you look at the issue … There’s new energy to be part of the national movement.”

Never before was there such a concentration of resources to house the 1,200 homeless veterans in the Atlanta area, he said. Home Depot gave more than $30 million through its foundation, and about $4 million in private funds was raised to end veteran homelessness. He estimates the city is halfway toward its goal and will reach it by June 30.

“That could not have happened if we hadn’t set a goal of ending homelessness for vets,” Biswas said.

When resources are limited, focusing on one segment of the homeless population can be risky, he said. “However, as a community, it is also important to innovate and find ways to address the needs of veterans at this time, because there are lot more additional resources available for this population.”

Paul Boden, the executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project in San Francisco, is behind right-to-rest laws that decriminalize homelessness. California recently became the fourth state to consider legislation that allows the homeless to use public space without discrimination.

“Addressing homelessness at the federal level has been nothing but a big, giant public relations scam,” Boden said. “They’re redirecting, reprioritizing and shuffling around homeless funding, thinking they’re going to address the housing issues … That means people are going to suffer.”

Buehler disagrees.

“To me, it’s the spirited effort that makes a difference,” she said. “It’s a great [goal] to rally the community around. Whether we get to absolute zero is not the point. The change in the system has been the big benefit.”