OCEANSIDE, Calif. (CN) – State and national experts testified before members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity on Thursday, highlighting strides made to decrease veteran homelessness over the past decade and continued challenges to getting housing vouchers accepted in cities facing housing crises.
U.S. Representatives Mike Levin, Mark Takano and Scott Peters – all Democrats – were joined by Republican Rep. Gus Bilirakis for a congressional field hearing near San Diego to take the temperature on the current state of veteran homelessness in the country.
While the congressmen heard from statewide and nationwide experts, most of the hearing focused on California, which is home to 8.5% of the country’s veterans but 25% of the nation’s homeless veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But nationwide – including in California – veteran homelessness is down significantly, decreasing nearly 50% in the past decade as federal dollars allocated to combat veteran homelessness increased from $713 million in 2010 to $1.65 billion in 2017. Currently, about 10,000 homeless veterans reside in California.
San Diego County Supervisor and combat Marine veteran Nathan Fletcher cautioned the congressmen that in areas of the country experiencing housing affordability crises, such as San Diego, veterans still face barriers to housing. He said vouchers through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program are not being accepted by landlords.
Fletcher said “this ought to be the easiest problem to solve.”
“We have to find a way to crack this nut to make sure that a veteran with a voucher has a place to go,” Fletcher said.
He said San Diego County has an incentive program which offers landlords who accept VASH vouchers bonuses, damage claim reimbursement, guaranteed utilities payment and other incentives to make renting to veterans more enticing.
Fletcher pointed to an affordable housing project for veterans in the San Diego community of Poway which was quashed by neighbors who didn’t want the county to approve 11 affordable housing units.
“It’s not a disregard for veterans – it’s just a disregard for veterans with mental health issues, or substance abuse issues or who are low-income,” Fletcher said, noting local officials who make land-use decisions need to have the “courage” to overcome that kind of opposition to get projects built.
Interfaith Community Services CEO Greg Angela told the congressmen his organization helped secure private donations to help a Navy veteran mother and her four children with a rental deposit after her VASH voucher was not renewed by her former landlord.
In his written testimony provided to the congressmen, Angela recounted federal flexible spending dollars used to prevent veteran homelessness “are expended so quickly, they are rarely available when needed.”
Last year, a federal grant to provide families small amounts of rental assistance to prevent them from becoming homeless was supposed to last Interfaith 12 months. The money lasted 10 days, Angela wrote, going to help 41 families – all of whom are still housed.
Angela asked the congressmen to increase flexible rental assistance dollars for those scenarios.
When asked by Rep. Takano how many people legislators could prevent from becoming homeless through cash assistance, Angela said last year his organization prevented more than 150 households from becoming homeless through $1,000 in assistance to each of the families. He said getting a family back into housing after they’ve become homeless costs upwards of $10,000.
“It costs us far less to prevent it than to deal with it,” Takano said.