Nearly a year after Mayor Kevin Faulconer pledged to house 1,000 veterans by March 2017, just 439 have moved into apartments or homes. More than 250 with vouchers or access to other rental assistance are seeking apartments in the city. County officials report another 100 veterans are looking elsewhere in the region as part of a separate initiative.
The pace could complicate San Diego’s ability to deliver on its goal to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2017, a deadline already extended after a failure to reach that goal in 2015.
Homeless veterans are spending weeks and even months seeking housing despite a major influx of incentives offered by the city and the county to encourage landlords to take them in.
Last year, veterans with Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers, which come with services and cover about 70 percent of a veteran’s rent, took an average of 75 days to find an apartment in San Diego County. A year later, the San Diego Veterans Affairs office reports it’s taking an average of 74 days.
Regional data shows local agencies are helping move more veterans off the streets but it’s come at a slower clip than they’d hoped. Last January’s annual homeless census documented a 16 percent year-over-year drop in veteran homelessness. The county and the cities of San Diego and Oceanside have since thrown more resources at the problem. They’re facing a bigger problem than most other communities nationwide: San Diego’s got the nation’s second-largest population of homeless veterans.
Local leaders hail improved collaboration between agencies and the commitment to addressing veteran homelessness but most acknowledge they’re facing a major roadblock in San Diego’s housing market.
“The process that’s been set in place works very well,” Veterans Village of San Diego CEO Phil Landis said. “Where it breaks down is the availability of housing.”
For that reason, Landis said Veterans Village of San Diego is preparing to add 30 short-term beds for veterans with vouchers who need a place to stay while they search for housing. At least one other agency, Escondido-based Interfaith Community Services, is working to convert some beds to so-called bridge housing for veterans, too.
“Obviously, we’re not creating new housing opportunities at the same rate we are finding veterans and providing vouchers,” Landis said.
Coast Guard veteran Jeff Taft knows this firsthand.
Taft, 62, has lived in a tent in East Village with his beloved Chihuahua-Jack Russell Terrier mix Billy Jack for about 14 months. He received a county voucher in August and has been searching for an apartment ever since.
Taft estimates he’s visited at least 50 apartments across the county, sometimes taking both the trolley and a bus to get there.
Each time, he said, he’s been told a previous visitor had already signed a lease or been promised a call back that never came.
Taft already requested one extension for his voucher before it was set to expire in October and is now mulling whether to seek a voucher in the city of San Diego instead. He’s trying to stay positive. He doesn’t want to remain on 17th Street.
“I don’t mind doing the legwork,” Taft said. “All I care about is four walls, that I can shut the door, lock it and be reasonably sure that my possessions are going to be there when I come back.”
United Veterans Council of San Diego County Chairman Jack Harkins, who stood with Faulconer as he announced the Housing Our Heroes program in February, said stories like Taft’s are too common.
At a Veterans Council summit this spring meant to rally the community behind housing homeless veterans, Harkins said he heard from a chorus of agency leaders struggling to find homes for their clients.
“We have too few landlords who are willing still despite good efforts,” said Harkins, a retired Marine Corps officer.
The San Diego Housing Commission reports at least 280 landlords have promised more than 740 units to the Housing Our Heroes program. Dozens more have leased apartments to veterans throughout San Diego County and in Oceanside.
The commission has dedicated five staffers to the Housing Our Heroes program and sunk more than $500,000 thus far into landlord incentives, security deposit payments and contingency funds.
The county’s spent nearly $60,000 on similar incentives and is prepared to invest more than $140,000 more.
Molly Kirkland, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Apartment Association, said her group is doing all it can to promote those incentives to landlords. They’ve created a web page about local veterans programs, spoken about them at events and included details in their magazine and communications with members.
“I think as more and more landlords hear about the incentives and have 24/7 case management (for the homeless veterans who receive vouchers) they feel better,” Kirkland said.
She acknowledged the difficulties that remain in a county with a vacancy rate that’s hovering under 5 percent for the studios and one-bedroom apartments that many homeless veterans are seeking.
Many landlords have said they’d like to provide units but don’t have any vacancies or have units that require rents too high to be covered with vouchers, Kirkland said.
Specific veterans’ circumstances can also add wrinkles.
San Diego officials report that landlords have offered up 139 units for veterans that haven’t been rented.
Like other San Diegans, veterans may want to live in a certain area or close to transit stops. Most prefer studios or one-bedrooms and have limitations on monthly rents they can pay.
Stacie Spector, Faulconer’s senior adviser for housing solutions, emphasized the need to work with veterans’ preferences.
“Everybody is entitled to make those personal decisions on their own. That’s not for us to decide,” Spector said. “We’re doing our part by getting the vouchers to them.”
Others underlined the difficulties homeless veterans can have competing for apartments.
Veterans who’ve been homeless for years sometimes fail to line up necessary documentation quickly and not all present well to landlords, said Todd Henderson, who leads the county’s department of housing and community development.
Hanan Scrapper, who oversees a VA-supported housing assistance program at Veterans Village of San Diego, said veterans can struggle to stay motivated to search for an apartment after repeated failures.
“It’s really difficult for them to put themselves out there and be turned down constantly,” Scrapper said.
Scrapper praised the city’s Housing Our Heroes program for dedicating more resources to assisting veterans, which she said can help ease an often overwhelming process.
Henderson said the county may consider deploying more resources to such assistance given the obstacles some veterans can face navigating the local real estate market.
Regardless of the challenges, city and county leaders say they remain committed to combating veteran homelessness.
Spector and San Diego Housing Commission leaders say they’re proud of the process they’ve created to match veterans with resources. Despite the stark realities, they say they’re confident they’ll have made a significant reduction in veteran homelessness come March 1 and may still reach their goal.
“We’re not letting it go,” Spector said. “We’re not letting it rest.”
Angie Slay, an Air Force veteran who moved into her East County home last August with the help of a veterans voucher, fell into homelessness early last year after an eviction. She was thrilled to eventually make a home in Jacumba with her three pit bulls.
As she made dinner at home this week, Slay described sending Christmas cards to county and VA workers who helped her escape the street.
“I would not be in a house right now cooking supper if it were not for those people,” Slay said.