The Changing Landscape of Veteran Housing in the United States

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Following a controversial Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in early September, many cities throughout the U.S. are stepping up their veteran housing game, especially in western states. In its 3-0 decision, the Court found that cities cannot criminalize individuals who are sleeping on sidewalks or public streets due to lack of housing.

According to the University of Nevada, Reno, 8.6 percent of the U.S. homeless population are veterans. Untreated mental illness is the primary factor that leads veterans to end up on the streets: about 30 percent of post 9/11 veterans suffer from depression, PTSD, and/or substance abuse.

In an effort to curb the national homeless epidemic, major metropolitan areas including Reno-Sparks, Nev., and Greater Portland, Ore., have made strides in 2018 with the goal of getting as many veterans into stable housing as possible.

In September, Reno-Sparks added 15 veteran-specific housing vouchers to its existing Department of Housing and Urban Development program. The same month, Oregon officials approved more than $2 million to be used to provide rental assistance for homeless veterans. The funds will be distributed to four counties — Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, and Marion — with Multnomah receiving the largest chunk. 

“These new vouchers will be life-changing for local veterans and their families, who can now receive secure housing and the support services they need,” said Komi Kalevor, Washington County’s director of housing services.

Multnomah County is allotted $1.36 million, or 159 housing vouchers. That number isn’t surprising given the county’s large homeless population, as well as its “A Home for Everyone” initiative, which seeks to find viable solutions to the housing epidemic.

In Clackamas County, the vouchers are just part of an overarching initiative to end veteran homelessness. 

“The new vouchers will make a big difference, but they are by far not the only thing that is being done to assist veterans in this county,” said Erika Silver, Clackamas County Veterans Service office manager.

According to Silver, the Clackamas Homeless Veterans Coordination Team has served 162 veterans as of October 23, 2018. Community solutions, including intensive case management, housing assistance, and job training, are a big part of the organization’s veteran support efforts. 

“Veterans engaging in these services overcome multiple complex barriers including PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Last year, 41 veterans were served, 78 percent became employed, and the remaining veterans continue to be actively engaged in case management and employment training,” according to the organization’s 2017 Veterans Day staff report

Clackamas County also hosts a transitional living facility for veterans, called Veterans Village, which helps bridge the gap between homelessness and housing placement. 

The voucher additions in Reno and Greater Portland come in the wake of additional veteran-specific housing initiatives across the country. 

One of the most prominent is California’s Housing Programs and Veterans’ Loans Bond, set on the ballot for Election Day in November, when general elections, especially of federal officials, takes place in America. Known as Proposition 1, the measure aims to help more people to live in the same communities where they work, by providing below-market interest rates with low to no down payment.

Proposition 1 is especially relevant due to the complexity of the VA home loan process. The unfortunate truth is that many veterans don’t qualify for the loans, which are backed by private lenders who often require a credit score of at least 620, the low end of “Fair” credit, and lower than the average American. For veterans who are stuck in a cycle of homelessness, addiction, and/or mental health issues, even the required “Fair” credit score may be out of reach. 

On the East Coast, veterans are facing a similar housing crisis, but for a completely different reason. Spectrum News North Carolina reports that Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in September, has caused a housing shortage on several military bases. More than 100 veterans and their families have been displaced due to the hurricane, according to the report.

The property management company Atlantic Marine Corp Communities (AMCC) claim that more than 70 percent of their base houses were damaged in some capacity, and that active duty military, rather than veterans, are their “priority.” A further 150 homes are a “complete loss,” AMCC said, prompting their decision to send 30-day notices to veterans with month-to-month leases.

In a statement, the AMCC defended its decision: “109 non-active duty month-to-month leases are not being renewed,” the statement reads. “We provided a 30-day notice to vacate these homes and end month to month tenancy…AMCC community management teams are in contact with all affected residents and are working to assist these tenants with the next steps in the process.”

Displaced veterans affected by the AMCC’s decision are not optimistic about their pending eviction or future housing options. 

“I really don’t know what to do,” said 64-year-old Navy veteran Michael Sherburn. “I just want them to be fair about all of this. We deserve better.”

It is unclear if housing vouchers are an option for the veterans displaced by Florence. What is certain is that the AMCC’s decision to evict veterans from base housing is just another roadblock towards a national initiative that ends veteran homelessness.

While their overall effectiveness can‘t yet be determined, housing vouchers may be the first step towards a permanent solution to America’s housing crisis.

Jori Hamilton is a writer from the Pacific Northwest who has a particular interest in social justice, politics, education, healthcare, technology, and more. You can find more of her writing work here

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