Vets deserve better from VA on voucher program

Anna Griffin

Anna Griffin

Opinion from Anna Griffin of the Oregonian, October 13, 2009

Here’s how things are supposed to work in the grand old U.S. of A.: You volunteer for the military. You fight for your country. You come home to a hero’s welcome, and whatever support you need to settle into civilian life.

Yet across the country, some 131,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. The majority served in the military during the Vietnam War era, which means many of them have been struggling with the root causes of homelessness – addiction and mental illness – for going on three decades.

Last year, the federal government awarded $75 million in rental assistance through something called the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. Vets who qualify receive monthly rent checks from Uncle Sam and an array of services that includes psychological counseling, drug and alcohol rehab and help actually finding a place to stay.

Social workers consider these the golden tickets of housing support because they address both the immediate need and longer-term problems that cause homelessness.

Portland won 70 vouchers in May 2008. One year later, just 22 were in use. That’s a lot of money sitting in a government account somewhere, and a lot of veterans who spent last winter on the streets or a friend’s couch.

“It was inexplicable,” said City Commissioner Nick Fish, who runs the Portland Housing Bureau.

Administrators at the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center say they were overwhelmed, like many VAs across the country.

“It’s a really time-intensive program, because there is so much emphasis on services,” said Ann Shahan, who coordinates VA anti-homelessness efforts in a region that includes Portland. “Nationally, there were issues with the voucher money being approved before local offices had caseworkers in place. That created bottlenecks.”

That makes sense, right? Bureaucracies, particularly the federal kind, are big and unwieldy. Change takes time.

Still, city housing leaders say part of their frustration – and they were frustrated enough to complain publicly even though they have to deal with the VA on a daily basis – came from spending months trying to get a straight answer from Pill Hill. They say the program just didn’t seem like a priority.

“Nobody seemed to know why it wasn’t working,” said Jill Riddle, who runs rent assistance programs for the Housing Authority of Portland, the quasi-public agency that doles out federal money.

In May, Fish, Riddle and Steven Rudman, the Housing Authority’s executive director, trekked up Marquam Hill to meet with hospital executives. It’s amazing what can happen when the people in charge actually talk: The next day, the VA replaced the bureaucrat who had been overseeing the vouchers. In the four months since, another 32 veterans have found housing.

But the delays had real consequences: This summer, the feds awarded another 10,000 vouchers. Portland received only 35, half as many as last year. Although Shahan denies it, city housing officials say they’ve heard from VA officials that we received fewer this year because we didn’t use the ones we already had.

“It’s a shame for our community,” Riddle says. “But at least we’re in a position now to show the people who make these decisions that we’ve learned from past mistakes.”

And not a moment too soon. Winter is coming. The rain is here. Of those 131,000 or so homeless vets, almost 2,000 are in the Portland region. They risked their lives – and in some cases, their mental health – keeping the rest of us free. A place to live seems like the least we can give them in return.