Officials hope to end homelessness for Tri-City veterans

WALLA WALLA -- Officials with the federal Department of Veterans Affairs in Walla Walla estimate there are 39 homeless veterans in the Tri-Cities -- and they say that's 39 too many.

"Even if it's only 39 vets, it's 39 vets," said Chris Oliver, who oversees grants related to homelessness for the Walla Walla VA. "The bottom line is (VA Secretary) Eric Shinseki, a year ago, said we should end homelessness among veterans in five years."

The estimates are based on the annual point-in-time count performed across the nation each January and national statistics that estimate 13 percent of the nation's homeless are veterans.

Subtracting children from the 433 people identified as homeless in the count performed by Benton-Franklin Community Action Committee in January 2010, and applying the 13 percent national average produced the estimate of 39 homeless veterans in the two counties, Oliver said.

But advocates for the homeless say the number produced by the annual count probably is too low simply because homeless people can be hard to find.

Ronda Jayne, the CAC employee coordinating the 2011 count that will take place Thursday, said volunteers look everywhere they can think to find homeless people. But she said the agency often is short on volunteers to cover all of the places homeless people may be huddled for warmth.

This year, CAC is making a particular effort to identify veterans, Jayne said. For the first time the survey includes a question about whether the person has served in the military.

"It has been an issue with the sponsoring agencies that we be sure to count veterans separately," Jayne said.

Getting a more accurate count could help the VA and lawmakers make a case for providing more vouchers to the region to help homeless veterans get housing.

The VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development co-sponsor VASH -- Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing -- that is similar to the Section 8 program HUD runs for low-income people, Oliver said.

It provides eligible veterans with rental vouchers they can use to find housing through public housing authorities, such as the Kennewick or Pasco housing authorities locally, or through any landlord willing to accept a voucher.

Oliver said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a leading veterans advocate, was instrumental in increasing vouchers provided to Walla Walla, Yakima and the Tri-Cities in 2010.

But the 3-year-old program is clouded by uncertainty because Congress has yet to pass a budget for this year, said Leland Jones, HUD spokesman in Seattle.

"Since no federal fiscal year 2011 appropriations bill has been passed, I'm not sure if there will be a fourth year of VASH funding," Jones said.

The voucher program isn't the only one VA has to help veterans. It also offers grants for nonprofits that provide transitional homes for veterans -- places where homeless veterans can live for up to two years while also getting post-traumatic stress counseling, job skills training or other services they need to rebuild their lives.

Oliver said the Walla Walla VA funds 44 beds for homeless veterans in Walla Walla and 11 in Yakima, but the need remains in the Tri-Cities.

Hope for Tri-City veterans is on the horizon, however, as the Columbia Basin Veterans Coalition is establishing a transitional house in Kennewick.

The 2,100-square-foot, four-bedroom house is near bus lines, grocery stores and other amenities.

The house was under foreclosure and being offered by the city through its Neighborhood Stabilization Program. The veterans coalition applied for the grant, and in October received title.

Steve Gaulke, a longtime advocate for the homeless, is helping the veterans coalition set up the house and find eligible occupants. He said they hope to be open in about four to six weeks, once renovations are finished.

Current projects include installing a sprinkler system, making the bathroom accessible for the disabled, setting up another bedroom and finishing some work in the garage. Some of the renovations are necessary to meet VA standards so the coalition can apply for a transitional housing grant.

Oliver is helping the group navigate the bureaucracy because the housing is badly needed. "We have been trying to get someone to apply for our VA grant for three years in the Tri-Cities," he said.

Gaulke said eligible veterans will be ones who were honorably discharged, have incomes of 50 percent of the Tri-Cities median income or less, and who are not abusing alcohol or drugs.

To avoid scaring neighbors, the vets also can't be convicted sex offenders, he said. But other past convictions may not be held against them.

"Working with people who are homeless, they might have a few dings on their record," he said. "We can work with that."

Criminal history -- especially sex offenses -- can prove a formidable barrier to people trying to move from the streets back into an apartment or even a homeless shelter.

Veteran Tim Miller, 54, of Pasco, said he has been homeless since April 2010, when he was evicted from his apartment after an assault conviction stemming from an altercation with a neighbor that turned into a shoving match.

With a felony record, he has been unable to find help through the Union Gospel Mission, which runs the only homeless shelter in the Tri-Cities, the VA or Community Action Committee.

He slept in his car for months until the engine blew up. He said he then turned to alleyways and cardboard boxes.

Gaulke said although Miller is an unlikely candidate for the veterans' house, he will do anything he can to help him find a warm, safe place to stay. He believes no one deserves to live on the streets.

Oliver said a criminal record, particularly for drugs, is common among veterans -- a VA report identified substance abuse as one of the top three reasons they become homeless.

"A high percentage of vets have addiction issues," he said. "A lot of times (addictions) begin or are the result of post-traumatic stress from being in the (combat) theater."

Other top reasons are not having job skills that transition well from the military to civilian life and poor adjustment to civilian life after military service.

That's one reason why it's important that these vets get connected to other services in addition to housing, Oliver said.

"A problem I see working in this field for over 20 years is a fragmentation of services," he said. "The solution is a united front -- partnerships."

Through partnerships, programs to help homeless veterans can succeed. In the region served by the Walla Walla VA -- from Yakima to Lewiston, Idaho, and into northeast Oregon -- the estimated number of homeless veterans has dropped from about 400 to about 275 in a six-year period, he said.

"We're doing good, we think, regionally," Oliver said. "We've got to do better in the Tri-Cities."