Been Down So Long
Chapter One - Page 2
"It's quite a push," said Mary Haynes, site director for the North Bay Veterans Resource Center, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit agency. "What's being done now isn't enough," said Jenny Abramson, coordinator of the Sonoma County Continuum of Care, a network of shelters, housing and other homeless services.
Their organizations are included in a coalition backing the Sonoma County Housing Veterans Campaign, which opens Monday at a public event from 2 to 4 p.m. at the veterans building. City, county and federal officials have been invited, and invitations were sent to 1,400 owners of rental properties compiled by the Sonoma County Housing Authority.
"It should be interesting to see if any of them show up," said Kym Valadez, the campaign team leader, referring to the owners. Valadez, a social worker at the Veterans Affairs Clinic on Brickway Boulevard since 2004, previously worked with homeless veterans for 20 years at Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco nonprofit group founded by six veterans in 1974.
"How can we let our veterans continue to be out there?" Valadez said. "We can't shrug and turn our heads away. It's morally wrong to do that to veterans." But she also acknowledged the economic realities of Sonoma County's housing market: An average rent of $1,335 a month, eighth-highest in the state, and a vacancy rate of about 2 percent, virtually tied for lowest in the state.
Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, which homeless vets typically seek, has increased 22 percent to $1,151 a month this year, up from $941 in 2005, according to RealFacts, a Novato apartment market research firm. Rents will continue to rise with few new apartments being built in the face of rising demand, fueled in part by short sales and foreclosures forcing owners out of homes, said Jock McNeill, president of Alliance Property Management in Santa Rosa.
"Until we get more supply, rents are going to go up and the competition will be fierce," said McNeill, whose firm manages 675 rental units, with only 13units unoccupied last week. Compounding the problem for veterans with vouchers, he said, is a reluctance by some property owners to rent to low-income people in rent-subsidy programs.
Eligible veterans receive a HUD-VASH voucher, which combines the Housing and Urban Development agency's rental assistance program with the Veterans Affairs program that provides case management and clinical services for veterans. The vouchers require veterans to pay 30 percent of their income toward rent, and those with no income pay nothing.
Since 2009, Sonoma County has received 185 vouchers that have housed 225 veterans, counting turnover in the program. Seventeen vets with vouchers now are looking for housing, and 42 more vouchers are available. McNeill said he would like to see the veterans housing campaign succeed, suggesting that it should emphasize the support system for vets. "I think that would make it really appealing to landlords," he said.
In the clean, well-lighted dining room at Hearn House, Michael Crawford, a Vietnam War veteran from Fresno, took a break from his laptop computer search of apartment listings. Many of the listings say "no HUD," meaning people with vouchers need not apply, said Crawford, 62, who's completed the six-month transitional program and holds a housing voucher.
Crawford, who joined the Air Force after graduating from high school in 1970, said he began drinking while serving on a security detail at Da Nang Air Base. "You pick up something to help your nerves out," he said, describing a soldier's common form of relief from the anxieties of war.