$2.9 million awarded for United Way program to end veteran homelessness in Orange County
A recent $2.9 million award from the state will support special outreach to veterans.
Somewhere out there right now in Orange County, about 80 homeless men and women who once served their country in the military are searching for housing, hoping to use government-issued vouchers to help pay the rent.
But they aren’t having any luck, and time is running out. Those vouchers come with an expiration date of 120 days from the time they are issued.
The problem is finding a landlord to accept the voucher.
That is one of many challenges officials face as Orange County pushes to become the second county in California to ostensibly end chronic homelessness among military veterans. So far, only Riverside County has managed to do that.
But Orange County — along with a collection of like-minded public agencies, nonprofits and private-sector advocates — recently got a boost toward that goal. The California Dept. of Veterans Affairs allocated $2.9 million specifically to help house veterans in Orange County.
The money will underwrite an outreach effort, through the “Welcome Home OC” program of Orange County United Way, that is considered a key step to getting veterans into housing.
The state money was secured through the efforts led by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris, D-Laguna Beach, who earlier this month celebrated that funding at a ceremony in Irvine. The event drew a packed crowd of active and veteran service members, nonprofit leaders, local politicians and other supporters.
United Way’s plan is to use the money to expand its ongoing landlord recruitment program by finding more apartment owners willing to rent to veterans who have vouchers. The organization also will provide “housing navigators” — people who are trained to connect veterans with voucher-friendly landlords.
“Welcome Home OC is the missing piece we need,” Petrie-Norris said as she unveiled a giant faux $2.9 million check, with the words “To End Veteran Homelessness in Orange County” written on the memo line.
“We will save lives,” she said. “We will heal our communities.”
The county’s target for 2020 is to achieve what is known as “Functional Zero” for the number of homeless veterans. It’s a benchmark set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which supplies the subsidized housing vouchers.
“Zero” is achieved when the estimated number of homeless veterans in a community is less than the average monthly rate of sheltered and unsheltered veterans who are placed into housing.
Right now, the population of homeless vets in Orange County is about four times bigger than the number of veterans who hold housing vouchers. The last countywide homeless census conducted in January recorded 311 ex-service members without a place to call home. Those people were on the streets, sleeping in cars, couch surfing, or spending nights in shelters and other temporary housing.
On the other side of that equation is about 300 so-called HUD-VASH vouchers available in Orange County. With a few exceptions, those vouchers are designated specifically for veterans with honorable discharges. For those veterans whose status disqualifies them for a VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) voucher, HUD’s Section 8 voucher program might be pressed into service, or there may be other assistance from nonprofit groups.
Officials who want to put a roof over the head of every veteran in the county say the vouchers, plus the support from the United Way — and widespread public outrage over the idea that somebody who served our country can wind up homeless — are reasons for optimism.
“We’re really counting on United Way in the landlord relationships that they have been building to house those veterans as quickly as possible,” said Susan Price, Orange County’s director of care coordination.
Price said local housing authorities will offer extensions for veterans with vouchers who wind up continuing to look for a dwelling even after the 120-day deadline.
She also said that the county has developed something that could be critical to helping people get housing and other services — a registry that identifies each veteran by name.
“It’s to the point where we know where every veteran is. And we’ve (made) contact with them,” said Price, whose position makes her the point person charged with addressing a homeless population that, in Orange County, is estimated at about 7,000 people.
The registry, which has more than 290 names, also designates whether or not a veteran is eligible for VA services, based on that person’s discharge status and other circumstances.
The Veterans Affairs office in Long Beach has agreed to make housing referrals for Orange County based on the registry, Price added. That way, the focus can be on veterans who are from, or who are already living in, the area.
Otherwise, Price said, “you could walk in from anywhere and say ‘I want to live in Orange County.’”
New and old developments
In addition to identifying existing apartments that might be rented to veterans with housing vouchers, the county has new projects in the works that are either exclusively for homeless or low-income veterans, or which have specific units set aside for veterans.
Two developments underway: Jamboree Housing Corp.’s $29 million Santa Ana Veterans Village, with 75 permanent supportive housing units for ex-service members, and the 50-unit Placentia Veterans Village being built by Mercy House, at a cost of $20 million. The Placentia project will include such on-site services as job training, finance management and yoga classes.
Both developments are expected to be completed next year.
Officials believe those projects, plus others already built or planned, make the county well positioned to providing a mix of housing alternatives for veterans.
And variety is important. Some former military people will want to live in a place where they’ll be surrounded by other veterans, while others will want to be in a conventional apartment complex.
And then there are others — a minority — who simply don’t want to leave the streets.
“It’s not that they want to be homeless, it’s that they want to be free,” said Richard Beam, a spokesman for the VA Long Beach Health Care System.
Beam said an older brother, a Navy veteran who was periodically homeless for a number of years, committed suicide more than 20 years ago.
“He was at a point where he did get a job and was stable. He even proposed to a woman he was in love with,” Beam said. But the proposal was turned down and his brother eventually drifted back to being a nomad.
“It just kind of made him think the responsibilities of life are (worthless).”
How it can work
A 16-unit complex for previously homeless veterans opened two years ago at Potter’s Lane in Midway City.
Most of the men who moved in when it opened remain, having settled into a new routine. Others have moved on, and a few were evicted for being disruptive.
Some of the men at the Potter’s Lane project keep to themselves; others seek out the camaraderie of their veteran neighbors.
Emil “Kurt” Carson followed his 14-year career in the Marines with a dozen more years living homeless, the last six under a bridge near the Santa Ana River. In 2017, an outreach worker at the Orange County Health Care Agency convinced him to accept help.
Told of the stepped-up effort to house homeless veterans by enlisting local landlords to take more vouchers, Carson, 56, said “that’s a start.”
He’s in favor of virtually any effort to house veterans.
“It doesn’t make much difference what way they get it, as long as they get something.,” Carson said. “Because living on the streets is killing us.”
Ask Carson and other residents what they like best about living at Potter’s Lane — which is unique, architecturally, for being constructed out of refurbished shipping containers — and most will offer a similar list of benefits. They’ve got security and a roof. They’re not sleeping on concrete.
They’ll also say the sum of those benefits is bigger than shelter.
“It means I feel like I’m human again,” said Cliff Wilson, a muscular 52-year-old, who had a brief stint in the Marine Corps when he was 18 and later spent two years homeless at the Santa Ana Civic Center.
Wilson, in addition to living at Potter’s Lane, has been hired by the nonprofit Illumination Foundation to work at a nearby recuperative care center for homeless people who are recovering from health issues. His rent is $700, a number that he can manage.
“I feel like I’m part of the solution instead of being part of the problem.”
Dean Harrell was ready to move out barely a month after he moved in. He was frustrated because he was told he couldn’t let his girlfriend stay longer than the three-day limit for most visitors. But Harrell, 66, now likes the security of Potter’s Lane.
“It keeps most of the vampires away; the people who will suck you dry of everything you have,” said Harrell, who lives on a monthly $970 disability check, of which $300 goes to his rent, subsidized with a VASH voucher.
The first year at Potter’s Lane included a constant stream of donations and get-togethers, though Harrell said that’s slowed. He’s fine with that, he added. The bigger benefit of living in the Potter’s Lane project, he said, comes from a return to normalcy.
“It’s a great place to get back on your feet.”
Overall, the work in Orange County mirrors the approach Riverside County used to house its homeless veteran population.
In 2013, the Board of Supervisors there launched Veteran Assistance Leadership of Riverside County, also known as the VALOR initiative. In 2017, the county reached the “functional zero” designation.
The effort included a community campaign to gain the support of Riverside County churches and residents, and multiple agency partnerships devoted to a daily task of housing veterans. The county also created a by-name registry, and those people eventually secured more than 600 VASH vouchers and 152 project-based vouchers. The county also helped to develop 275 affordable housing units specifically earmarked for homeless veterans.
Riverside County aimed high, setting a goal of housing 100 veterans in the first 100 days of the initiative. It beat that goal by 40.
“If we hadn’t set this large a goal we wouldn’t have moved as quickly,” said Carrie Harmon, director of Riverside County’s Housing Authority.
“It was incredibly hard work which, in the end, created huge systems and culture change.”
The effort doesn’t end when a veteran gets housing; there’s also the issue of helping them stay. With the $2.9 million of state money earmarked for Orange County, United Way is expected to help with services a homeless veteran might need to remain in their housing. That can mean anything from home visitations, help with finding and getting to a food bank, or figuring out bus routes.
Employment services to help unemployed veterans who can work is vital, Price said.
The Veterans Administration provides supportive services but Price said that help often is not as intensive, or frequent enough, to support veterans who previously were homeless. And many veterans won’t reach out to the VA, even when they qualify for services.
“You’ll have a veteran saying ‘I don’t want the VA coming to visit me at my house,’” Price said. “They want the VASH voucher, but they don’t want the VA coming and knocking on their door.”
From the VA’s point of view, the key is to help the veterans, regardless of who provides the help.
“Our main concern is that veterans get housing,” said Beam, the public affairs officer. “We don’t care how or by what resource as long as it can point them to a process that at the end of the day they will be housed.”