Rent vouchers in hand, homeless Idaho veterans still struggle to find housing

The Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Housing and Urban Development’s supplemental housing program for homeless veterans, or HUD-VASH as it’s commonly known, is the largest homeless veteran housing program in the country. The program provides 190 housing vouchers across Southern Idaho — 25 in Twin Falls, 12 in Canyon County, the remainder in the Boise area. The number of vouchers given to communities across the United States is based on HUD’s annual Point-in-Time homeless count.

Veterans are using 138 of the 190 vouchers. Twenty-four veterans in Boise have vouchers, but can’t find apartments. The veterans are living in shelters, on the streets, or “couch surfing,” staying with friends until something opens up, said Anna Johnson-Whitehead, health care for homeless veterans program manager at the Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Twenty-eight more “open” vouchers are available for veterans to use.

Veterans Affairs has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. Johnson-Whitehead doesn’t think Boise will make it. Nationally, the communities using HUD-VASH vouchers have housed 78 percent of their veterans. Boise is below the national average at 73 percent.

Johnson-Whitehead and others working with HUD-VASH want to get the word out to potential landlords about this urgent need in the community.

A landlord’s market

Safe, affordable housing is tough for anyone to find, let alone for veteran voucher holders. A combination of reasons are to blame, said Deanna Watson at The Boise City Ada County Housing Authority, the local housing agency partnering with Vetearns Affairs.

Apartment vacancy rates are relatively low in the area, around 2 to 3 percent. It’s a landlord’s market. Watson is optimistic that the current building boom in Boise will eventually mean more affordable apartments, but that’s a ways off, she said.

“HUD-VASH looks really good when vacancy rates are high, but not so good when they’re not,” said Watson.

In addition, the program requires landlords to take certain steps to be eligible. They include filling out paperwork to become a HUD-VASH-approved landlord, opening properties up for inspection, making any necessary repairs and more. Even if a landlord agrees to work with the program, the required inspections can take time. That’s time that a landlord is not collecting rent.

“We’ve lost landlords in the last year because they’re tired of the bureaucratic process,” said Watson.

The vouchers provide up to $619 for a one-bedroom apartment, including utilities. The HUD fair market rent for such an apartment is $585. All of that is out of step with the realities of the Boise market. A local firm, Mountain States Appraisal and Consulting Inc., tracks rental prices in Boise. A one-bedroom apartment in a typical 30-year-old complex rents for between $560 and $635 a month. Average prices for the same size apartment in a newer complex with more amenities range between $725 and $825.

The HUD-VASH program requires veterans with jobs or other income to pay 30 percent of their rent (40 percent if they have other assets like savings). The HUD-VASH voucher makes up the difference up to $619 for a one-bedroom apartment.

Veterans searching for apartments can take a financial hit long before they get settled, said Watson. A person transitioning out of homelessness with a spotty credit history might have to apply for multiple properties before getting approved. Rental application fees, typically around $35, sometimes as high as $45, add up. They deplete meager resources, leaving nothing for first and last month’s rent and security fees. Some local agencies, including El-Ada Community Action Partnership, help veterans with small grants, but that money is limited.

Out of the Air Force, out of an apartment

Crystal Dunkin thought the Air Force would be her career. She enlisted at age 18 and served in Desert Storm as a munitions systems specialist. In 2003, when she was 33 and stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, a medical condition forced her retirement.

“I wasn’t prepared to get out of the Air Force. I was just so lost, blown away,” said Dunkin. “When I put that uniform on, it was a huge sense of pride. When I didn’t have it on, I didn’t know who I was.”

The Tennessee native struggled to find her place in civilian life. She spent years working a score of jobs, from waitressing to landscaping, to working with children with autism. Nothing fit. “I couldn’t find my niche,” said Dunkin.

She moved a lot, sleeping on friends’ couches on more than a few nights. Mental health issues, including recurring thoughts of suicide, landed her in the veterans hospital in Boise on numerous occasions. Dunkin started abusing alcohol. She got treatment through Veterans Affairs and applied for the HUD-VASH program. In 2010, she found an apartment in a complex in Boise’s North End. She has lived there ever since.

“This is the first time in my entire life, where I’ve lived at one address for more than two years. It took that two years to pass before I ever put one single decoration on my walls. I was too afraid of it being taken away,” said Dunkin, who lives with her two dogs, Angel and Halo. Today, three tapestries from the Middle East hang on her walls. They’re the sole remnants of her military service.

In February, some of her fears were realized. She learned that after nearly five years, the owner of her apartment complex isn’t renewing her lease. Dunkin smokes on her patio. She’s heard that neighbors have complained to the property manager.

“I’ve walked up and down every street in the North End. I’m always honest upfront. Landlords ask if I’m with a voucher program. They say they don’t participate in voucher programs,” said Dunkin.

Dunkin says she lives a simple life. She receives a VA disability check for $926 a month. Her apartment rent is approximately $620 a month. She pays around $280. She uses the services of local food banks, sharing the food with friends who are also living on modest incomes. She still deals with severe depression, a condition that makes her unable to hold a job. She has filed a claim with Veterans Affairs for unemployability based on mental health issues. She spends time with her dogs. She writes to 30 pen pals and volunteers for organizations that help other veterans. She looks out for neighborhood birds and squirrels by maintaining a large collection of feeders in the hills near her apartment.

All she wants, she said, is to find a “nice, peaceful relaxing place to call home.”

She wants potential landlords to know she’s courteous and respectful.

“I learned that as a little kid in the South. And the military reinforced it,” she said.

Before learning the news that she was losing her apartment, she was training to become a volunteer with the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. She credits a hotline with saving her life some years ago. All of that is on hold for now.

“My priorities have changed. I need a lease,” she said.

She plans to stay in Boise, no matter what happens. “Even if I’m homeless in Boise, Boise is still my home,” she said.

Stigma and safety nets

Stigma is a reality for veterans trying to transition out of homelessness. Some landlords worry that renting to a homeless person, veteran or not, puts their properties at risk. They worry that renters might have mental health issues or other problems.

“For some landlords, there’s a patriotic duty to rent to veterans,” said Watson. One apartment complex on the Boise Bench, for example, lowered the rent on an apartment because the voucher holder was a veteran. “But I’ve also had landlords say, ‘How do I know if this person’s going to be OK? Does he have PTSD? A criminal background? Credit issues?’ ”

Homeless veterans do have complicated histories, including medical issues. Some have credit problems and criminal records. Veterans who are registered sex offenders are not eligible for the program.

Despite the realities of the homeless veteran population, Whitehead-Johnson notes that while HUD-VASH provides a safety net for veterans, it also provides one for landlords. In addition to regular, reliable rent payments, the program includes annual inspection of rental properties to make sure landlords, but also renters, are caring for the properties.

Each HUD-VASH voucher user has his or her own case manager. Case managers make home visits and provide other oversight and support.

“It’s more than what would come with a civilian tenant. Landlords can call case managers the minute there’s any kind of concern,” said Johnson-Whitehead.

Amanda Walund, a licensed clinical social worker, is the case worker for around 30 HUD-VASH voucher users in Boise. Since she began working with the program in 2011, she’s found it more and more difficult to get veterans housed.

“It seemed that when I first started, we had a good base of landlords, more property managers on board. In the last few years there are fewer property managers who will accept vouchers and rents have increased beyond what vouchers will pay,” said Walund. She has other veterans who have been housed in the same apartments, making regular rent payments for years, who are now being priced out.

Some veterans have given up the search for apartments in Boise and moved to Canyon County, where finding an apartment can be easier.

“That’s unfortunate because most of the services veterans need are at the VA in Boise. And there are more employment opportunities here. We feel like our hands are tied right now. It feels like running full speed at a brick wall when we don’t have places to refer veterans to,” said Walund.

One of the HUD-VASH voucher veterans she worked with looked for an apartment in Boise for eight months.

“He certainly had some barriers,” said Walund, referring to his bad credit history and other issues, “but it wasn’t for lack of him, or us, or the housing authority trying to find him a place.” The veteran ended up giving up his voucher. He eventually found a room. Walund worries because the atmosphere is not a healthy one. “But he was just tired of searching,” she said.

Willingness, but no room

Douglas Peterson directs The Housing Company, a part of the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. The group builds and manages affordable housing across the state. It currently rents to three HUD-VASH voucher holders, all in Canyon County.

“April 2014 was the first time we used HUD-VASH. We’ve had no negative issues, no calls from neighbors. It has been a pretty positive experience all around. We get paid our rent on time,” said Peterson.

His organization is used to renters who have housing vouchers, “working people, blue-collar people, a cross-section of demographics, most on a lower fixed-income basis. “We have great renters, and we have a couple renters who don’t work out so well. But that’s the way it is in life,” Peterson said. All kinds of neighborhoods have problems, he added, noting the story of a man in an affluent neighborhood who got in trouble with his neighbors and neighborhood association after he built a fort for his kids out of cardboard boxes in his front yard.

“Whether we believe in the politics of war, or the politics of being a Democrat or a Republican, we should care that veterans made sacrifices. They gave their minds and bodies. We should respect that and show them some care and assistance,” said Peterson. “We don’t judge how they got here.”

Peterson’s willingness to rent to homeless veterans only goes so far. He doesn’t have the space. His organization manages a 32-unit complex in Boise. There are 51 people on the waiting list.

A HUD-VASH success story

The HUD-VASH program operates on the principle that housing is a basic human right. It follows a “housing first” philosophy: Start with a safe home, then build from there to solve other problems. HUD-VASH vouchers don’t expire. They’re available indefinitely for the veterans who need them. But in an ideal scenario, a homeless veteran will use HUD-VASH to get healthy, get a job, become self-supporting and leave the program.

Gale Hacking is a veteran of the Vietnam War and the HUD-VASH program.

Hacking was born in Pocatello. He grew up in Soda Springs and Rupert. He enlisted in the Navy when he was 17. Hacking served three combat tours in Vietnam between 1968 and 1972. He returned from war to an unfriendly country. He recalls his first days back on American soil. Seattle was his first stop. He and his fellow sailors wanted to see the Space Needle. They were still in uniform because none of them had street clothes. They stumbled into an anti-war protest. The crowd threw bottles “and anything they could get their hands on” at him and the others, said Hacking.

“At the time, we were just kind of numb about it. In retrospect, it disillusioned us. We had a lot better idea of how we were going to be received. It put us in a tailspin for a while,” said Hacking.

He eventually returned to Idaho. He got a job as a core driller with the Bureau of Reclamation. A long string of troubles — divorces, addiction to alcohol and drugs, and jail time —caused him to lose his job.

“In between jail, and the Boise Rescue Mission, and living where I could, I was homeless for 15 years,” said Hacking. “It got to a point that I was thinking of going up into the hills, digging a hole and ending the misery.”

Better thoughts intervened. Hacking got an apartment with his HUD-VASH voucher instead. Having his own place was surreal at first, he said. But having that place, not being exposed to unhealthy temptations and unhealthy people, made all the difference for him, he said. He started volunteering at the VA and got treatment for his addictions.

“Once you get sober, you realize you need to catch up. You start doing good things,” said Hacking.

While at the VA, he diligently checked job listings at the human resources department, sometimes once a week, sometimes two or three times a week. When a job opened up as part of the team working with homeless veterans as a full-time community employment coordinator, Hacking was an obvious fit.

“They wanted someone who could understand the people living on the street, who had been there, who could communicate with people on their level,” he said.

Hacking’s desk is in a bright corner cubicle at the Veterans Affairs office. It’s lined with windows onto River Street, just across from the shelter he knows well. But he has his own apartment. He pays his own rent.