In an effort to speed the process of finding housing for homeless veterans in Los Angeles, the VA Secretary joined the city's mayor in appealing to landlords to commit more housing units. The problem is not lack of money for housing subsidies.
Federal funds have been allocated and have yet to be spent. The challenge is finding the rental units, according to entities working with veterans.
"We have over 500 veterans searching for a unit right now. They have a government subsidy in hand. All they need is a willing landlord to say yes," said Christine Margiotta, vice president of community impact for the United Way, co-sponsor with the LA Area Chamber of Commerce of the "Home for Good" project.
Its new initiative is called "Homes for Heroes."
Its goal is a thousand outreach is a thousand units by year's end, the target date suggested by the White House and embraced by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti for ending homelessness of veterans.
In the city of Los Angeles it's estimated there are more than 2,700 homeless veterans, and in the county, more than 4,000.
Los Angeles has found more housing for homeless veterans than any other US city, Garcetti said. But the pace has slowed in the past year, and more recently Home for Good has been placing just over 200 homeless veterans a month, according to Margiotta. Garcetti, who served as an active duty officer in the Navy and remains a reservist, acknowledged it may take beyond New Year's to reach the goal.
"We're going to get as close as we can," said Garcetti. "And even if it goes into spring of next year, that's a huge victory for our veterans."
The tight rental market — with the vacancy rates down to three percent — is one of the factors making it more difficult to find housing, but some see other factors as well. There can be issues for new tenants transitioning from living on the street, said apartment building owner Vickie Strogin.
"And I think when they move into an apartment they kind of bring that with them," said Strogin. "I think there's some fear of owners of the veterans, because maybe there's the Rambo types they've seen on TV" said Jim Perley, himself a Navy veteran who flew combat missions in the Vietnam War, and now president of Western America properties, which has a large portfolio of apartment complexes.
"Ongoing staff support" is promised by the Homes for Heroes program. "We don't want failure," said Perley, who hopes the program can develop a "national model" for placing veterans with compatibility.
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development funds vouchers issued through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, to cover the cost of market-rate apartments beyond what individual veterans can afford.
"A couple of places I told them I was waiting to get a voucher and they said, 'well, we really don't accept those," said James Graham, a disabled veteran who served in the Marine Corps in the late 70s, early 80s.
After being approved for vouchers, veterans often have to wait several months or longer before they actually can move in. Marine Corps veteran Justin Walker received voucher approval four months ago, and only now is close to being able to move into an apartment, he said.
Walker was disabled in an auto accident that caused permanent head and back injuries. He received a medical discharge in 2009. Much of the past year he has been homeless, couch-surfing or overnighting in his car. Awaiting apartment move-in, he has been staying in a shelter, he said. Graham and wife Alice, whose nursing career was ended by scoliosis, have also lived much of the past year out of their car, they said.
Their return to an apartment came with the help of Operation Healthy Homecoming, a program operated in Long Beach by Mental Health America of Los Angeles and funded the through VA's Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families.
The Grahams' need for housing became acute after he was hospitalized with pneumonia. In their case, Operation Healthy Homecoming was able to locate a suitable apartment in less than a week.
"I got the key and I was ale to take James here right from the hospital," his wife said.
The idea for the Homes for Heroes initiative emerged last January during a brainstorming session with visiting VA Secretary Robert McDonald, recalled one of the attendees, Douglas Guthrie, president and CEO of the city of Los Angeles Housing Authority.
The session came after the annual goal-setting for Home for Good, announcing its commitment to end homelessness of veterans by 2016. It was clear to Guthrie that doing so would require a broader group of participating property-holders.
Landlords were invited to the Homes for Heroes announcement breakfast meeting Friday morning, and VA Secretary Robert McDonald encouraged them to sign oversized cardboard "keys" as a pledge to house veterans.
"Let's hold up our keys!" McDonald urged, and some 30 landlords and property owners responded. Now the challenge is to bring on board the landlords who were not in the room.