Veterans' Experiences Illustrate Changes in VA Policies for Homelessness

The availability of VA housing assistance has changed dramatically for the better over the past two years--but not without snags, as can be seen in the experiences of two veterans who teetered on the brink of homelessness.

Decades after his tour of duty in the US Marine Corps and transition back to civilian life, DB Roberts had rarely found need of assistance to which all veterans are entitled from the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

Roberts, 57, made his living in the private security business, which brought him from his native New Jersey to Los Angeles. His health was good. The only time he needed VA health care, he recalled, was briefly after a bout of food poisoning two decades ago.

But five years ago, his life was upended by an fall that collapsed a lung, and injured his wrist and knees. Lingering damage left him unable to continue his security business, Roberts said, but his application for Social Security disability was denied, leaving him in a financial bind, struggling to pay the rent.

In 2013, Roberts went to the VA for help, but got a jolt.

"They told me that because I was not imminently homeless, they could not help me," Roberts recalled. There were exceptions — but not being an ex-con, and not having substance abuse problems — he was told he did not qualify.

He sought a rental subsidy through the program known as VASH — Veteran Affairs Supportive Houisng — but again he did not qualify, he recalls being told, because he did not have a history of chronic homeless.

The VA referred him to a nonprofit Veterans Service Organization, where a counselor suggested he claim a drug problem to qualify for a residency program.

Roberts considered it, but learned the program would require he kennel his dog Beau, and he was not about to do that.

So he applied for general relief, $221 a month, and food stamps, and got help from family and friends, couch surfing for a time, then moving into a friend's shed in the Antelope Valley, where he earned his keep by taking care of the property.

After nearly a year and a half of this, when Roberts decided to give the VA another try, he discovered things had changed.

President Obama had called for ending veterans' homelessness by 2016, and directed the department to be more responsive to applications for mental health benefits and reduce delays in processing them.

The VA also had a new secretary, Robert McDonald, himself a West Point Graduate who served in the 82nd Airborne Division before a career in the private sector during which he rose to Chairman, President and CEO of Procter & Gamble.

Recently retired, McDonald accepted Obama's challenge to tackle the VA's problems.

"They said policies had changed," Roberts remembers being told when he went back to the VA last October.

His application for HUD Section 8 housing assistance was expedited and approved in two months. Until he could locate a new apartment, interim housing was found at a Hollywood facility of PATH — People Assisting the Homeless — where Beau was also welcome.

His new case worker also told him something he had not heard before: that apart from Social Security, the VA offers its own disability assistance--$900/month — with a threshold of disability below what Social Security requires. His case worker helped him with that application.

"She's been phenomenally helpful," he said.

For the Greater Los Angeles area, the VA now has 400 staffers assigned to working with housing issues, McDonald said.

From the experience of another veteran on the verge of homelessness, it's clear not all case workers provide the same level of service.

Disabled Navy veteran Wayne Robinson had relied on VA Healthcare since his honorable medical discharge, but never sought housing assistance until last fall, after learning of the President's

Despite health issues, Robinson, 60  has been able to work in clothing design and make-up.  But rent was taking two-thirds of his income and he was struggling to keep his apartment. He was delighted that his application for rent assistance was approved in two weeks.

But as he began his search for an apartment, he was surprised when a case worker told him he could get additional benefits — such as having his move-in expenses covered — if he were already

Robinson said he took that as encouragement to leave his apartment before he could move into the new unit with the subsidy, and he did.

The case worker could not be reached for his account, but McDonald said he stresses to staff that VA policy is to keep veterans from losing their housing. The issue came up when he met with the Greater LA staff at the end of January.

"We talked about those at risk, and making sure they don't fall into homelessness," McDonald said.

Robinson also faulted his case worker for failing to find interim housing other than homeless shelters until he could move into the apartment with subsidized rent.

The shelter where Robinson stayed briefly in December requires all who overnight to exit by 7 a.m., even on rainy days, and Robinson believes that was a factor in his contracting pneumonia for which he was hospitalized.

At one point he spent three days living out of his truck.

Robinson said he got action when he went to the case worker's supervisor. She got him into path that same day, Robinson said, and assigned him a new social worker.

"The woman reassigned me is wonderful," Robinson said. "She's an angel."

Likewise Robinson is impressed with McDonald and the steps he has taken. The problem Robinson sees are not in policy, but in managing staff resources to make sure there is follow through.

Even as Robinson and Roberts look forward to moving into new apartments with subsidized rent, the bigger challenge is aiding the estimated chronically homeless veterans. In all in Los Angeles, it's estimated 4,000 veterans are without homes.

The public private partnership known as Home for Good sends outreach workers to locate the homeless and connect them with services. It has been placing more than 400 veterans a month into housing, according to director Christine Margiotta.

The challenge in achieving the President's goal by year's end, she said, is to bump up that placement rate to more than 500 a month, every month.

The VA has been criticized for not providing more housing on its sprawling 386-acre campus in West LA. It had originally been deeded back in the 19th century as a home for veterans. Last month, in announcing the settlement of a lawsuit against the VA, McDonald pledged a new master plan for campus development, and to move away from leases with outside interests that do not directly benefit veterans.

Late 2016 is seen as the earliest that new housing on the West LA campus could be planned, approved, and built. For the near term, efforts to place veterans in need of homes will rely on persuading more apartment owners and managers to make units available to veterans bringing government-funded rent subsidies.

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