Sonoma County veterans struggle to find housing
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Charlie Wall, a military veteran who knows the loneliness and privation of homelessness, has a ticket to a better life.
Wall, 57, a recovering alcoholic who takes medication to ward off anxiety and mood swings, has completed a six-month program at a Santa Rosa veterans facility and is hunting for an apartment.
There lies the rub. The apartment vacancy rate in Sonoma County is minuscule, rents are among the highest in the state and most landlords won’t rent to down-and-out vets.
Wall is one of 17 Sonoma County veterans who hold a government rent voucher and are looking for landlords willing to accept them as tenants. About 40 applications and a few interviews have gotten Wall nowhere.
Sonoma County and the federal government have set goals for eliminating homelessness among veterans by 2015, with a federal report calling it “a national priority.”
But both efforts are likely to fall short, despite an 18 percent decline in the number of homeless vets from 76,329 in 2010 to 62,619 last year.
Without changes, including greater federal spending on the voucher program, the national goal won’t be met, according to a February report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
In Sonoma County, a snapshot survey in January found 400 homeless veterans, and 402 were counted in the previous survey in 2011. Veterans advocates believe the number is much higher.
The stigma of being low-
income and relying on government housing vouchers can be tough to overcome.
“I’m a wonderful risk,” insisted Wall, who has long hair, a beard and wears aviator-style glasses. “I’ve sowed my oats; I’ve had my time.”
All he wants now is to “settle down and get to know some people,” said Wall, who served for 10 years in the Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam War era, leaving the service as a staff sergeant.
He’ll go to AA meetings and perhaps join a Catholic church congregation, returning to the faith of his youth.
“Sounds corny, but it really is me,” Walls said in an interview at Hearn House, a veterans transitional housing facility that opened in February on West Hearn Avenue in Santa Rosa. “I am so resigned to taking it easy.”
Many people are watching and rooting for Wall and his cohorts, the focus of a program that kicks off Monday with a meeting at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.
Ending veteran homelessness in Sonoma County by the end of 2015 would require placing about 1,300 veterans in permanent housing over that time, advocates calculated.
A more reasonable goal, they decided, would be to find stable housing for 30 vets a month, tripling the current placement rate.
“It’s quite a push,” said Mary Haynes, site director for the North Bay Veterans Resource Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit agency.
“What’s being done now isn’t enough,” said Jenny Abramson, coordinator of the Sonoma County Continuum of Care, a network of shelters, housing and other homeless services.
Their organizations are included in a coalition backing the Sonoma County Housing Veterans Campaign, which opens Monday at a public event from 2 to 4 p.m. at the veterans building.
City, county and federal officials have been invited, and invitations were sent to 1,400 owners of rental properties compiled by the Sonoma County Housing Authority.
“It should be interesting to see if any of them show up,” said Kym Valadez, the campaign team leader, referring to the owners.
Valadez, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs Clinic on Brickway Boulevard since 2004, previously worked with homeless veterans for 20 years at Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco nonprofit group founded by six veterans in 1974.
“How can we let our veterans continue to be out there?” Valadez said. “We can’t shrug and turn our heads away. It’s morally wrong to do that to veterans.”
But she also acknowledged the economic realities of Sonoma County’s housing market: An average rent of $1,335 a month, eighth-highest in the state, and a vacancy rate of about 2 percent, virtually tied for lowest in the state.
Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, which homeless vets typically seek, has increased 22 percent to $1,151 a month this year, up from $941 in 2005, according to RealFacts, a Novato apartment market research firm.
Rents will continue to rise with few new apartments being built in the face of rising demand, fueled in part by short sales and foreclosures forcing owners out of homes, said Jock McNeill, president of Alliance Property Management in Santa Rosa.
“Until we get more supply, rents are going to go up and the competition will be fierce,” said McNeill, whose firm manages 675 rental units, with only 13 units unoccupied last week.
Compounding the problem for veterans with vouchers, he said, is a reluctance by some property owners to rent to low-income people in rent-subsidy programs.
Eligible veterans receive a HUD-VASH voucher, which combines the Housing and Urban Development agency’s rental assistance program with the Veterans Affairs program that provides case management and clinical services for veterans.
The vouchers require veterans to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and those with no income pay nothing.
Since 2009, Sonoma County has received 185 vouchers that have housed 225 veterans, counting turnover in the program. Seventeen vets with vouchers now are looking for housing, and 42 more vouchers are available.
McNeill said he would like to see the veterans housing campaign succeed, suggesting that it should emphasize the support system for vets. “I think that would make it really appealing to landlords,” he said.
In the clean, well-lighted dining room at Hearn House, Michael Crawford, a Vietnam War veteran from Fresno, took a break from his laptop computer search of apartment listings.
Many of the listings say “no HUD,” meaning people with vouchers need not apply, said Crawford, 62, who’s completed the six-month transitional program and holds a housing voucher.
Crawford, who joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in 1970, said he began drinking while serving on a security detail at Da Nang Air Base. “You pick up something to help your nerves out,” he said, describing a soldier’s common form of relief from the anxieties of war.
He’d been homeless for seven months in the Santa Rosa area, living with friends, before he came to Hearn House in March. “Kept me from drinking myself to death,” said Crawford, who receives $1,171 a month in Social Security benefits.
Hearn House residents participate in counseling sessions three times a day. “I had to talk about my stuff,” Crawford said, after years of not discussing his issues with anyone.
Therapy helped him “remove a lot of shame and guilt,” and Crawford, now sober, said he will continue seeing a VA psychiatrist and working on his drug and alcohol issues after leaving the house.
“We just need people to give us a shot, to trust us,” he said, referring to landlords. “I don’t want to become homeless again. I want to cherish my apartment and stay in it.”
In the January survey, 400 veterans comprised 11 percent of the county’s homeless adults, and 86 percent of them were unsheltered, living on the street, in vehicles or encampments.
“Veterans are overrepresented among the homeless population,” said a 2009 report to Congress. Slightly less than 8 percent of the total population has veteran status, it said.
The reasons are not all related to military service, but “combat exposure, wartime trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder can lead to further social isolation and psychiatric hospitalization, which are primary risk factors for homelessness,” according to a report on Vietnam War-era veterans in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
About 40 percent of the county’s homeless veterans were age 51 to 60, by far the largest age group, in both the 2011 and 2013 surveys.
Veterans housing advocates noticed an emerging trend as the percentage of homeless veterans age 18 to 30 more than doubled from 7 percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2013.
Veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now are moving into the homeless services pipeline, Valadez said.
It often takes several years of “crashing,” relying on friends and relatives for shelter, before a veteran winds up living in a car, Abramson said.
Charlie Wall, who said he lived in motels, hotels and on the streets for four years before coming to Hearn House, said there is nothing romantic about that life.
“You’re extremely lonely,” he said. “It feels like no one gives a crap.”
When he was paying $750 a month for housing with no voucher, plus $200 for prescription drugs for post-traumatic stress symptoms, Wall had about $200 left from his military pension for “food and cigarettes,” he said.
Wall doesn’t think the public is obliged to help veterans. “We went in to serve this country,” he said. “We knew what we were doing.”
But, he allowed: “If you want to be kind to us now, that would be wonderful.”
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.