Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo, D-Chatsworth, hosted a committee hearing on Tuesday at Santa Clarita City Hall where several representatives from state and county agencies spoke on the different services that they provide to veterans who are homeless or may be nearing homelessness.
According to Schiavo, the best available data shows that veteran homelessness has dropped to its lowest level since the financial crisis of 2008. That, she said, shows how hard the government is working to combat homelessness, but “we have to be wary of concluding too quickly that our efforts are bearing fruit.”
“Veteran homelessness may be on the decline,” Schiavo said, “but homelessness in general is rising every year, and one line going down is little comfort to a veteran who is just a week away from experiencing homelessness.”
Schiavo had two separate panels of speakers, the first covering outreach and the second covering actual services for homeless veterans.
How funding is generated for homeless veterans
According to Roberto Herrera, the deputy secretary of veterans services for the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet), the number of homeless veterans in California in 2009 was roughly 17,900. Today, he said, that number has declined by about 40%.
Nationally, there are roughly 580,000 homeless people, with about 30% of those being veterans, he said. He added that those numbers are comparable to California’s numbers.
Abbilyn Miller, the chief program officer for the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, spoke about how keeping track of the number of homeless veterans helps agencies to know what needs to be done. She said veterans are vetted before being placed on what is known as a “binding list” that helps agencies to know who is homeless and the different situations that they may be in.
“The idea is, if we can know, then we can house,” Miller said.
Miller said that the Veterans Association is working with LAHSA to ensure that data collection is universal and streamlined, creating what she called a “triage tool” within the Homeless Management Information System that will be available to all homeless service providers.
According to Jennifer Seeger, the deputy director of financial assistance for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program was created to “make at least $75 million annually available for the development and preservation of affordable housing and related facilities, including supportive services for veterans and their families to maintain housing stability.”
The program, and others provided by HCD, have helped fund 38 projects in Los Angeles County totaling $22.7 million.
Schiavo questioned the panel on how veterans who make more than 30% of the median income can be eligible for the services that these agencies provide. Many of the programs have requirements that must be met, including income, before housing can be provided. Veterans who receive enough service-connected benefits may end up making more than 30% of the median income and are then ineligible for housing through programs.
Gen Escobosa, the veteran services coordinator for LAHSA, answered by saying that this is a problem that she has seen when trying to fill up housing projects — one project had 28 housing units but only four qualified applicants — and something that Assembly Bill 1386 could help with.
AB1386, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 11 and set to go into effect in January, “would address this challenge by providing increased flexibility and an expedited process so that supportive housing providers can quickly and efficiently move homeless veterans into available beds,” according to a news release from the office of Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, D-Encino, who authored the bill.
“We owe it to these veterans – and to taxpayers and residents – to ensure that we are cutting down on red tape and moving our homeless veterans into housing as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Gabriel said in the release.
How homeless veterans get housing
Getting funding and building housing projects is just one step to eradicating the homeless veterans’ problem. Getting people to actually move into those homes, and stay there, is another step that must be taken, and it isn’t always easy, according to Donna Deutchman, president and CEO of Homes 4 Families, but the resources that L.A. County has at its disposal makes it feasible.
“One of the things that I really want to impress upon the committee is that it is possible to build homes for low-income and formerly homeless people at a cost at or lower than some multi-family housing,” Deutchman said.
What Homes 4 Families is doing, Deutchman said, is creating neighborhoods where veterans can live together in a community that provides on-site services. These homes, 78 of which have been built in Santa Clarita and 408 overall, are specially made to be curated for specific problems that veterans can face — including post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing and light sensitivity — and allow for entire families to be housed, or just one person.
According to Deutchman, these neighborhoods are affordable, with the cost being at or less than 30% of a veteran’s income, and they work, with families proven to have a 0% foreclosure rate and children who are able to graduate high school and go on to college.
Steve Peck, the president and CEO of U.S. VETS, focused on how his organization is helping to get senior veterans into homes.
“We know that the aging veteran population is increasing, and it is the fastest-growing population among the homeless,” Peck said.
The problem, Peck said, is that the government views benefits — Social Security, disability, etc. — as income, and many senior veterans cannot qualify for low-income housing with those benefits.
“That’s a compensation for their disability,” Peck said. “It is not an income, and we’re trying to get the (Department of Housing and Urban Development) to make that distinction.”
Peck touted the West L.A. VA program that is set to provide 1,200 units of housing for senior veterans. He said that 214 units have already been built, all for senior veterans, with another 600 units set to be opened by the end of next year.
The problem, Peck said, was finding enough senior veterans who don’t receive large benefit packages to fill those units. To combat that, U.S. VETS gave back some of the federal funding to allow for the organization to house those whose income is 100% derived from benefits.
Peck is hopeful that the federal government can help streamline this process and make it easier for senior veterans to find a permanent home.
Where to go from here
Schiavo said she was pleased to hear that so many agencies are coming up with programs to help homeless veterans, but she wants to see more progress.
The issue, from her perspective, is outreach and awareness that these programs exist.
“You heard lots of talking about some permanent supportive housing spots that are not being filled in a way that they thought they would be,” Schiavo said. “I think it’s really important, and our office really focuses on making sure that we’re connecting people with programs, with resources and making sure we get the word out, just about what’s out there for people to support them.”
People in the community are also stepping up to help these veterans who are either homeless or are nearing that point.
Johnny Escobedo, a business agent for Ironworkers Local 416, said that his organization has a program called Helmets to Hardhats that gives top priority to veterans who need a job.
“Full medical, pension, livable wages — what everybody in California needs,” Escobedo said. “It’s something that we go without, people overlook that.”
Seeing Escobedo providing a way up for veterans brought a smile to Schiavo’s face in the Council Chambers, along some of the veterans and supporters of veterans in the crowd.
“A lot of times, it feels like what happens in Sacramento is so disconnected to the local community,” Schiavo said. “And for me, it’s really important to make sure that we bring what’s happening in Sacramento here to the community and make those connections about what is actually happening. We have incredible work happening right here in Santa Clarita, and this is a really important space for us to make sure that our community knows about it, people can get connected with services and resources and know about programs that are out there for them.”
The full committee hearing can be viewed at tinyurl.com/4vx6t88m.