Joy Schweitzer is the daughter of a World War II veteran, and her son is currently serving in the U.S. Army. She also has a step-son in the Army, and another who previously served.
But those strong family ties aren’t the only reason she has a heart for homeless veterans.
“I believe in giving people second chances,” said Schweitzer, who opened the property management company Around The Town, Inc. in Boise about 20 years ago.
She could operate like most property managers, renting only to those with the best credit and least complicated personal histories.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
But Schweitzer decided about five years ago that she wanted to be part of the solution to getting homeless veterans off the streets. She talked to the roughly 120 property owners she works for and got a handful — including some retired military — to agree to allow her to sign people who would otherwise be considered too risky.
She’s not trying to save the world, just one veteran a month. Over the years, that has added up to dozens.
It hasn’t been easy, and they’re not all success stories. But Schweitzer is proud of her efforts, and she’s hoping fellow property managers will resolve in 2016 to do the same.
“If you look in the phone book, there are three pages of property managers,” Schweitzer said. “If they were just to take 2 percent of their owners and ask them to help a vet, with the great plethora it would certainly open up opportunities.”
Lack of affordable housing options continues to be the single biggest impediment to getting Southwest Idaho homeless veterans out of emergency shelters and off the streets. The market is extremely tight, with the apartment vacancy rate hovering around 3 percent.
Government officials at all levels — from Boise Mayor Dave Bieter to President Barack Obama — have publicly pleaded with landlords to accept federal vouchers and give homeless veterans a chance. But Boise veteran Don Peebles doesn’t think the message has gotten through.
“The brick wall is getting the landlords to play ball,” said the 58-year-old former business owner, who for six months last year lived at Cooper Court, in parks, along the river and in a tent at an RV park because he refused to abandon his beloved dog for a warm bed inside a shelter. “It’s very discouraging to me. The vets had the public’s back, you’d think they’d have our back.”
Peebles is one of the veterans whom Schweitzer helped in out of the cold last year. Since October, he and his dachshund, Maggy, have been living in a one-bed apartment in West Boise. He’s within walking distance of his new job at Vets 4 Success Thrift Store.
HOW MANY NEED HELP?
Every year in late January, there’s a nationwide effort to count the homeless. The Department of Housing and Urban Development said 564,708 people were identified as homeless in last year’s count.
Idaho’s tally was 1,966, according to a statewide report available online. About 17 percent were veterans.
335 veterans were identified in Idaho’s 2015 homeless count
Obama in 2009 challenged community leaders across the country to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Only a handful of cities and the state of Virginia have reached that goal. They demonstrated they can provide immediate shelter to all homeless veterans who need it and the ability to move veterans quickly into permanent housing. Cities such as New Orleans can get veterans into permanent homes in 30 days or fewer, which they refer to as “functional zero.”
From 2009-2014, the homeless veteran population in the U.S. fell by more than 25,000 in 36 states. During that same period, the numbers grew by about 1,000 in 14 other states, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.
The average move-in time for those served by the Boise wing of Veterans Affairs in 2015 was 69 days for the Boise area and 75 days for the Twin Falls area, according to Anna Johnson-Whitehead, who oversees the local Healthcare for Homeless Veterans Program.
The Boise area average for the first two months of fiscal 2016 was 105 days. Federal officials say the benchmark most communities should be able to reach is 90 days.
Rental assistance is available to veterans through the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, most often referred to as HUD-VASH. Homeless veterans may obtain one of 206 housing vouchers available in the Boise VA program service area, which includes Boise, Twin Falls and surrounding areas. The vouchers cover some or all of the rent, depending on the veteran’s income.
Currently, there are 27 homeless veterans in this region who have vouchers and are looking for affordable apartments — and landlords who are willing to accept them. The tight rental market means rents are rising.
“It’s about money,” Peebles said. “Why rent it for $670 a month when they can get $950?”
The problems faced by many homeless people, including substance abuse and mental illness, also create stigma. Add government regulations to the mix, and it’s easy for landlords to opt out.
Veterans Affairs provides case managers for veterans seeking housing — and that support continues after they have a permanent residence. The Boise office now has seven licensed clinical social workers who work on the voucher program. That compares with just one in 2008. Each of the social workers has a caseload of about 30 veterans.
“I’ve never seen a more dedicated group of people,” Peebles said.
ANOTHER SUCCESS STORY
Douglas Stewart, a 60-year-old Army veteran, tried to talk to landlords about available apartments all summer. He estimates he put out 80 calls before he got a single call back. The first to respond to his query was Schweitzer.
“She’s been a lot of help,” he said Thursday afternoon.
Schweitzer listened intently as the Idaho native explained his life story. His wife died in 2007, and his life went into a tailspin accelerated by heavy drinking. He got a DUI and lost his job. He has some serious health issues, including kidney stones, high blood pressure and depression.
In a tight rental market, where it is easy for rental applicants to be viewed primarily as quantifiable data gleaned from background/credit checks, Joy and her staff go an extra step. They take time to get to know their applicants. Within this effort, humanity is invariably found in the nuances of one’s individual experience and situation.
John Randall, LCSW, HUD-VASH resource specialist — Boise VAMC
Within a few years of losing his wife, Stewart lost almost everything else he had. He moved in with his parents and stayed there for a year and a half, then sought help from local shelters and programs.
One of the places he landed was the Boise Rescue Mission, which established the Veterans Ministry Program in 2010. Veterans Affairs officials offered to pay for the program, but the shelter’s board didn’t want any strings attached. So they opted to launch the program without taking any government money.
“I’m a Vietnam veteran, a combat veteran. I’ve always had great empathy for veterans,” said the Rev. Bill Roscoe, director of Boise Rescue Mission. He said he wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him to do it sooner.
The entire third floor of the men’s-only River of Life Shelter is dedicated to veterans. There are 19 single-bed rooms on the floor, which is decorated with military photos and patriotic memorabilia.
There’s no limit on how long veterans can stay in the program, though staff aim to help everyone into permanent housing within six months. Since 2010, more than 140 have been helped by the program. Staff estimate there are currently another two dozen veterans staying among the general population on the first floor of the shelter, and a few are in the shelter’s substance-abuse recovery program.
With help from VA case workers, Stewart obtained Social Security disability benefits — he recieves about $1,500 a month — and a voucher for housing. He pays $480 of his $645-per-month rent for his one-bedroom apartment, and the voucher covers the rest.
He doesn’t own a car. The nearest grocery store is about a mile away, so he usually walks and then takes a cab home. His VA caseworker recently gave him a lift home from the St. Vincent De Paul foodbank.
It was about five years from when Stewart hit bottom to when he got the keys to his new apartment. Over the holidays, he took a bus to Southern California to see his daughter and grandsons. He’s thankful for all the help he received in getting his life back together.
“I didn’t give up hope,” he said. “I just had to keep plugging away. I was keeping myself sober, so it had to be for a reason.”
NEED HELP OR WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
▪ The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a 24-hour call center for homeless veterans: 1-877-424-3838.
▪ Interested in finding out more about the HUD VASH Voucher Program — and how you can support veterans in search of a home? Call John Randall at the Boise VA: 208-422-1000, ext. 7425.
▪ The city of Boise has a link on its website with information about groups that support the homeless. Go to cityofboise.org and click on the green “ways to give” box.