There are more than 136,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., and California has more than a quarter of them. So while the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is patting itself on the back for handing over more than $4 million in grant money to the Bay Area to help house homeless veterans, this translates to only about 400 vouchers -- a drop in the bucket.
The grant was split among the competing Bay Area counties, with Santa Clara getting the most -- 100 vouchers -- and San Francisco getting a meager 25. San Francisco's most recent homeless count, conducted on January 27, shows that there are about 6,455 people living on the city's streets. Of those, 1,077 people, or 17 percent, were identified as veterans.
The process for getting a voucher is somewhat confusing, to say the least. The San Francisco Veteran's Affairs (VA) medical center screens applications and decides who gets one of the 25 vouchers. The veterans are then assigned a VA case manager and are sent to the Housing Authority's Section 8 program, which manages all payments of rental housing assistance to private landlords on behalf of low-income households.
And here's where it gets even more hopeless. According to Sara Shortt, executive director of the S.F. Housing Rights Committee, San Francisco's Section 8 program has "plummeted into the depths of dysfunction." There are currently 14,000 families on the waiting list -- which has been indefinitely closed -- and Shortt says that the Section 8 staff is notorious for losing files, not returning phone calls, and having rude and unprofessional employees.
"There's a sense of extreme chaos emanating from that department," Shortt told SF Weekly. Even HUD itself issued an audit earlier this year telling the agency to clean up its Section 8 program.
What this means for homeless veterans is that, even if they are selected to get vouchers, there's no guarantee they will get housed. That's like getting a check and not being allowed to cash it. What's more, the vouchers expire, so the recipients have 90 days to find housing with rent low enough that it would be covered with a voucher -- and that's no easy task in this expensive city.
But even then, Shortt says, voucher recipients often are turned away by landowners. "Nine out of 10 landlords are saying 'No' to Section 8," Shortt says. "I'm pretty convinced it goes back to the Housing Authority's performance -- landlords as much as tenants have been feeling the brunt of the system's failure to function. And the landlords just don't want to put up with it."
This is illegal, but the Housing Authority isn't doing much to enforce the law, she says.
We asked Gene Gibson, regional public affairs officer for HUD, how the agency would get the word out to veterans. She gave a vague response. "Well, we did a news release," she said.
This is not the only grant by HUD this year. Gibson says California was given 100 vouchers in June, and more may be coming. Still, she admits that it's not much. "This is what Congress is willing to spend," she says.
Given that HUD announced in a recent press release that its goal is to end veteran and long-term chronic homelessness by 2015, it still has a long way to go.