WASHINGTON -- Darren Spencer, a 39-year-old Army veteran from Tacoma, found himself homeless after losing his $15.45-an-hour job as a furniture mover a year ago.
He takes pills for his depression and has trouble hearing. He has no car. And his unemployment benefits ran out in December.
But Spencer considers himself lucky on one count: In August, he got a voucher from the federal government to help pay the $725 monthly rent for his apartment in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, where he now lives with his 18-year-old son Lamont.
"I still have a lot of stress, but that's one thing I don't have to stress about," he said. "It's still hard, but at least now I have a place to stay."
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Spencer is among the thousands of beneficiaries of a federal effort to end all homelessness among veterans by 2015. It's a lofty goal as the nation gears up to accommodate another 1 million servicemembers who are set to return home from war in the next five years.
To get the job done, President Obama and the Veterans Administration are thinking big, asking Congress to increase spending for veteran homeless programs by 33 percent next year, to $1.35 billion.
In the Tri-Cities, the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition in August opened the Wagenaar-Pfister house in Kennewick, a place where homeless veterans can live for up to two years while they get back on their feet.
The house has space for up to seven men, where they can find a stable place to live, but also counseling, substance abuse programs, job referrals, clothing and food, among other help.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington is the champion of the cause, making it the issue a centerpiece of her tenure as chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Last year, when some House Republicans proposed eliminating 10,000 vouchers as a way to save $75 million from the 2011 federal budget, Murray led the fight to get the money reinstated. At the time, Republicans defended the plan by saying that many of the vouchers were not being used, but the program has won plenty of bipartisan backing and critics have been largely silent this year.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me on the street, who tell me stories of having lived on the streets, out of Dumpsters, in horrible conditions, and because of a voucher have got a place to live and are now back . ... My passion comes from that," Murray said in an interview.
Murray, who also heads the Senate Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, called the president's latest budget request "absolutely essential" and said the administration's timetable is laudable.
"We'd all like to end it tomorrow," she said. "But it's the first time they've set a goal of doing this, which really focuses everybody on what we are doing."
Last week, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, sent out $73 million in voucher aid to public housing agencies in all 50 states, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan called the level of homelessness among veterans "national disgrace."
According to the government's latest count, 67,495 of the nation's 22 million veterans were homeless in 2011. That's a 12 percent drop from a year earlier, when the government found 76,329 veterans in emergency shelters or living in their cars, abandoned buildings or on the streets. If Congress approves the new funding request, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress last month that the number of homeless veterans will fall to 35,000 next year.
But Murray, the first woman to lead the Senate veterans committee, is none too pleased with the VA's performance in one key area: She says far too many female veterans are falling through the cracks and getting inferior service when they do find their way to government shelters.
While the overall numbers have declined, the number of homeless women veterans more than doubled from 2006 to 2010, going from 1,380 to 3,328.
A report by the VA's inspector general last month found serious safety and security shortcomings facing women in shelters, especially those who experienced sexual trauma in the military.
Investigators found women getting assigned to live in mixed-gender facilities with bedrooms and bathrooms without sufficient locks and halls and stairs that lacked proper lighting. In one case, a woman and her 18-month-old son were assigned to a building that housed a homeless male veteran who was a registered sex offender.
"Sometimes they stay on the street because it's more safe than going into a facility that doesn't have locked doors or separate bathrooms," Murray said. "Or in some cases where these women have children, there's no place for their children. ... That is really an outrage to me."
Spencer, who served six years in the military after joining at age 18, said he has been frustrated with the VA because he wants more help with his mental-health issues. He said he believes he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder but only has received medication for depression.
"It's just been pill after pill after pill," he said.
For the last 15 years, he said, he has worked a variety of jobs, "from a steamboat to a billy goat -- I've done it all." His jobs included grinding metal at a foundry, working in warehouses as a shipping clerk and forklift operator, even helping produce a radio show. He said he had to file for bankruptcy in 2005 and that it has been difficult for him to maintain either a job or a place to live.
"No matter how much I tried, every two steps I would go forward there would be five steps taking me back," he said. "It just seemed like somebody had their foot on my neck and I could not get up."
Each voucher, which is provided by HUD's Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, is worth about $7,500, with veterans paying no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Local housing programs help HUD and the VA administer the program.
As a result of last week's announcement, Washington will receive 325 new vouchers, and more are expected by the end of summer.
Since losing his unemployment benefits, Spencer said he has been relying on "the grace of God" to survive, along with timely temporary jobs such as helping friends or acquaintances move.
And without a federal housing voucher, he said, he has no doubts that he'd be homeless again.
"It's been a big load off of my shoulders," Spencer said. "And it just feels good to be able to say I have a place to stay, and my kid has a place to lay his head."
* Rob Hotakainen: 202-383-0009; email@example.com