California county, organizations seek solutions for hundreds of homeless veterans
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Carl White sat on a black and red couch in his tent — his Pitbull mix, Buddy, at his feet — and a black "Army" hat placed proudly on the top of his head. A camouflage tarp hung at the tent's entrance in south Sacramento, flapping in the breeze.
White, an Army veteran, has been homeless for about 2½ years. When his seasonal job working as a painter ended, he could no longer afford rent.
"Everything was normal up until about two and a half years ago and then I kinda got stuck out here," White, 60, said. "I haven't got $2,500 to spend on an apartment."
There are an estimated 646 homeless veterans in Sacramento County, 75.5% of whom are sleeping outdoors or in vehicles, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report released this year. Only one other major city in the country, Los Angeles, had a higher percentage of its homeless veterans sleeping outdoors.
The number of homeless veterans in Sacramento has more than doubled since 2016, when there were 308 homeless veterans, including 46% who were sleeping outdoors, according to HUD data.
"It's shocking," said Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness. "I hope it shocks our elected officials into action."
One California city ended veteran homelessness
Eighty-two municipalities and three states have effectively ended veteran homelessness, according to the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. Riverside County is the only California locality on that list.
In that Southern California county, staff created a list of homeless veterans living outdoors or in shelters, said Michelle Davis, housing manager at the Housing Authority for the county of Riverside. Representatives from the Veterans Affairs office, outreach workers, the housing authority and shelter providers met weekly to work their way through the list, finding housing for each person. They used Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers, rental assistance, and tiny homes, Davis said.
The task was smaller for Riverside, which has an estimated 2,884 homeless people countywide, compared to Sacramento's 5,570. But Davis said Sacramento County officials could duplicate the same strategy.
"It's kind of like you're all rowing in the same direction and everyone is focusing on one common goal instead of everyone working on different sub-populations," Davis said.
Joe Smith, advocacy director for homeless nonprofit Loaves and Fishes, says if Sacramento replicated Riverside's approach, that would be "a huge step."
"Let's learn from other municipalities that have ended homelessness for veterans and let's just get it done," Smith said. "This is absolutely, positively doable."
Erlenbusch agreed, but added that he wants Sacramento to also focus on housing other sub-populations, such as families, seniors, LGBTQ people and young people, at the same time.
Sacramento County has 1,148 homeless families, with 49% sleeping outdoors or in vehicles, according to the HUD report. Only one other major city, Long Beach, has a higher percentage of its homeless families sleeping outdoors.
The Volunteers of America currently has 192 Sacramento veterans in a program helping them find permanent housing and employment, said Kia Phillips, case manager for VOA's veterans services. Since Jan. 1, 114 Sacramento veterans have found permanent housing through the program. The organization also serves 40 veterans in transitional housing at Mather Community Campus, where they receive alcohol and drug recovery, credit repair and job placement assistance as needed.
The Salvation Army has 40 beds for veterans at a downtown emergency shelter, said spokeswoman Samantha Jarosz. The facility, which offers counseling and help finding jobs, resolving legal issues and reconnecting with family members, served 72 veterans from April through June.
Many homeless veterans are hesitant to seek out those programs on their own, Smith said.
"They're very proud of their service, they're just very proud individuals. For some, because of that pride, they have a tough time reaching out and asking for help," Smith said. "A lot of them are conditioned to be survivors and so that's how they're taking this — just another mission to survive."
That's the mindset White has, too.
"I'm proud to be a veteran," White said. "I served my country for almost nine years. I don't think I should get anything more than anybody else does. But they could set up some sort of program to help (veterans)."
About 88% of homeless veterans in Sacramento County have been homeless for more than a year, according to a 2019 census count of the homeless community.
To contact hard-to-reach homeless veterans, three times a week, VOA staff go to encampments with food and water to build trust and urge them to enroll in the programs. VOA has openings for outreach staff, but is having a hard time finding employees, preferably who are veterans themselves, said Christie Holderegger, a VOA vice president and chief development officer.
"They need to have more people out there pounding the streets," said John David "Pitbull Dave" Chapman, a veteran who spent 36 years homeless along the riverfront before finding housing through the VOA. "(Homeless veterans) don't understand there's help out there. You got to have someone show them there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
But even if homeless veterans do decide to go to a shelter or participate in a program, they will likely have a hard time finding a spot. All the VOA's shelters and programs for veterans are full, Holderegger said. The Salvation Army emergency shelter does have spots open, but fewer than a dozen, Jarosz said. Both organizations had to reduce capacity when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Both could increase capacity with more private donations, Holderegger and Jarosz said.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg Wednesday released a Master Siting Plan to Address Homelessness, which includes 20 new sites in the city for homeless shelters, tiny homes and sanctioned tent encampments, pending City Council approval Tuesday. The plan includes a site in North Sacramento for 15 veterans to live in 10 tiny homes.
Erlenbusch said the plan should have more housing and shelter designated specifically for veterans.
"The 15 (beds) is a small step forward to address the men and women who served our country," Erlenbusch said. "It's not nearly enough. It's not even close."
White said he would definitely want to live in one of the new tiny homes, so long as he'd be the only person to occupy a space.
"I don't like living with a lot of people," White said. "I've always been on my own."
Despite receiving no government assistance or paycheck, White is optimistic that he'll be able to get into housing eventually.
"Things have a way of happening," White said. "I know it sounds hopeful, but you'd be surprised."
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