A home for the holidays: Santa Barbara County nonprofits strive to house homeless veterans

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) estimates that there are more than 47,000 homeless veterans on the streets of America on any given night. In Santa Barbara County, 208 of the homeless are veterans according to a local study.

It’s a staggering statistic, but not easy to explain. Virtually all of America’s military vets are guaranteed a no-down-payment home loan. With a benefit such as this, why do homeless veterans exist at all?

The factors that contribute to veteran homelessness are complicated. According to the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans, many vets fall victim to homelessness for several reasons: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, lack of family support, or being trained in a military occupation that doesn’t always transfer into a civilian job. It’s hard for a veteran who struggles with mental illness or doesn’t have a job to qualify for a VA loan guaranteed through the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Awareness of veteran homelessness is growing across the country, and Santa Barbara County is just one region of the U.S. where housing programs give veterans a major boost in finding a more permanent place to live. 

One solution is Homes for Heroes, a program coordinated by the Central Coast Collaborative on Homelessness (CCCH), which aims to connect veterans to landlords with vacant properties. The process works by having a landlord notify CCCH when a house or apartment becomes vacant. A caseworker is assigned, and the organization arranges to pay a security deposit and up to six months of rent. 

CCCH is not where the money comes from. The money actually comes from a Veterans Administration grant called the Supportive Services for Veterans Families program (SSVF), which is a nationwide initiative to end veteran homelessness. 

Approximately 350 such grants were handed out to community agencies across the country, according to Kristine Schwarz, executive director for the Santa Barbara-based nonprofit New Beginnings Counseling Center, which also received an SSVF grant. 

According to CCCH Executive Director Chuck Flacks, there are enough vouchers to house all 208 veterans in the county. That number comes from the January 2015 Point in Time Homeless Count. It’s a bi-annual count conducted as a part of HUD’s effort to track the nation’s homeless population. 

Results from the count show that there are 1,455 homeless in the entire county. Of that number, 208 are veterans.   

New Beginnings also works with the county’s Veteran’s Treatment Court in Santa Maria. The goal is not just finding housing for homeless vets, but preventing them from ending up on the street in the first place. 

New Beginnings provides a range of specific assistance, from rental/security deposit assistance for units and utilities, to help with getting furniture and finding jobs. 

“They might need a mattress or a bed, or a refrigerator, basic appliances, and things like that,” Schwarz said. “We also help people find employment and increase their income that way.” 

In three years, Schwarz said, the nonprofit has helped several hundred vets get housing and/or avoid eviction. 

Her organization takes a “housing first approach,” Schwarz said, which means getting vets into housing as quickly as possible. The nonprofit assigns case managers who work with landlords and housing authorities to look for subsidized housing. An inspection of the home is conducted, and the whole process takes a matter of days. 

One benefactor is Marine Corps veteran Steve Baird, who the Sun profiled in a cover story in May. After graduating from veterans court, Baird found himself couch surfing from house to house. He eventually found housing through New Beginnings. 

As an alumnus of the court, Baird now mentors vets and helps them find housing. 

It can be difficult sometimes, Baird said, because many landlords aren’t jumping on board with the program. It can be harder for landlords to accept a tenant who has bad credit or a bad rental history. 

“Once you get an unlawful detainer [essentially an eviction lawsuit] on your record, good luck finding a place,” Baird said. “All it takes is just falling down one time.”

Baird recalled one instance where a landlord thanked a homeless veteran for his service upon denying him a place to live. According to Baird, this is common.

“Unfortunately, it’s few and far between where the landlords will understand that it’s a human life that we’re dealing with here,” Baird said. “Moral support isn’t going to pay the bills.”

Fortunately, there was a recent success story. Kris A. (he preferred to not use his last name) is an Air Force veteran and 2001 graduate of Santa Maria High School who found himself struggling with drug addiction upon leaving the service. 

He did time in county jail and state prison before ending up in the Christian Recovery home in Lompoc, where he spent two months. 

“Prison was very traumatizing,” Kris said. “I got in and I got out and I didn’t want to go back.”

Judge Rogelio Flores, who oversees the veterans court, transferred him to the Coast Valley Substance Abuse Recovery program—which also has a Christian church and a sober men’s home. 

Kris told the Sun that of the 14 men living in the home, four were veterans, including himself, and he was living there the longest. On Dec. 11, Kris was notified that he had received housing through New Beginnings. 

Another program vets have access to is HUD-VASH—or Veterans Assisted Subsidized Housing—which is a county-administered program. Whereas a SSVF voucher pays for 100 percent of the rent, HUD-VASH pays for up to 70 percent. And Schwarz said that it’s possible to receive help from both programs. 

Even with finance help, homeless vets face other obstacles. Besides unwilling landlords, there’s also a problem with housing availability, which is scarce on the Central Coast. According to a 2012 comprehensive market analysis conducted by HUD, the overall rental vacancy rate is estimated at 3.9 percent, lower than the 5 percent that’s considered a healthy market.

But there are efforts to make availability. Cary Gray, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who volunteers as a mentor at the veterans court, told the Sun that his wife and her brother converted their mother’s old home to house five veterans. 

Elsewhere, other cities are finding ways to end homelessness. In Washington, D.C., a 14-story building is being constructed that will provide housing for up to 60 homeless vets and 64 low-income adults, according to National Public Radio. 

Utah is on the brink of ending homelessness entirely by simply giving people homes, according to The Washington Post.  

With the 208 homeless vets in the county, there are more than enough rental subsidies that can match that number, according to the CCCH. This means that every single homeless vet can be housed. 

“The idea in everybody’s mind is, ‘Can we get the word out to homeowners, even homeowner associations?’” Flacks said. “When there is a house available, there are a number of nonprofits that have contracts to provide case management to pay for the security deposit and even help the vets for up to eight months.”

At the Dec. 8 Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a different statement was made on the issue of homelessness in general. Shortly before he was led away in handcuffs by a sheriff’s deputy after refusing to leave the podium when his three minutes was finished, activist Bob Hansen demanded an end to the “war on homelessness” and demanded that homeless shelters in Santa Barbara stop screening for intoxication as a precondition for entry. 

“We need the Santa Barbara American Red Cross to open up a real shelter,” Hansen said just before the podium microphone was cut off. “I want to make a point. We need to do something. I’m not leaving. I’ve done it before. Merry Christmas.”

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at [email protected].

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