Contra Costa County urges landlords to help homeless veterans find housing

Contra Costa County urges landlords to help homeless veterans find housing
By Rick Hurd

A three-bedroom rental in Antioch across the street from a strip mall might not seem remarkable to some, but Pierre Lee and Janai Beverly still can't get over the fact that they have a roof over their heads.

As recently as July they were nearly homeless.

"The way we look at it is that at least we have a landlord; at least we have someone who rents this out to us," said Lee, who has two young daughters. "It wasn't all that long ago that we didn't have that."

Lee, a U.S. Army veteran, is a success story for the Zero 2016 project, a national campaign launched in 2010 by the White House and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with the goal of housing all homeless veterans by the final day of 2015.

Veterans frequently face an uphill battle when returning to the housing market, with a lack of credit or rental history. Often, they are still looking for a job. The Zero 2016 program aims to convince landlords to rent to homeless veterans even if they don't meet the usual criteria for new tenants.

Contra Costa County joined the campaign in January 2015, one of more than 70 communities across the country to participate. Veterans receive vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, which are handed out to eligible vets to defray costs in a way similar to Section 8 housing assistance.

The program appears to have made significant inroads over the past year. The estimated number of homeless vets in the county was 237 at the start of the year. By the end of November, housing was available for all but 57 of them.

"We've seen an 18 percent increase in the veterans that we've housed compared with the same time last year," said Lavonna Martin, the chief of homeless services in Contra Costa County. "And that's in spite of the tight housing market. When we see that happen in a market that's very different today than it was a year ago, it tells us that we're doing something right."

The program's success in Contra Costa County is even more notable because the county has one of the highest costs of living in the state. According to the most recent data, the average cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Contra Costa County is $1,835.

Nationally, according to a 2014 count required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to measure homelessness, the number of homeless veterans had decreased by 33 percent since Zero 2016 began six years ago.

From Army cook to combat soldier

Lee enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2009 "just to be a cook," he said. By the time he was honorably discharged in 2012, he'd been redirected into combat in Afghanistan. The war scarred him, leaving him with night terrors, constant anxiety and other symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Then they discharge you, and really, once you're out, you're out. See ya," he said. "And now you have to readjust to society. You have to find a job. You have to find a place to live. In my case, I had money coming to me that I didn't get right away, so how do you come up with a deposit? So onto all of this stress you're bringing home with you, you add all that much more," Lee said.

"For every story like mine, there's a thousand more."

Beverly was there for him. Friends since childhood, the two are engaged. They were nearly homeless until turning in late July to Shelter Inc., the Contra Costa-based nonprofit shelter that helps the homeless get on their feet. The organization paid a deposit to get the two into the home where they now live with 3-year-old Genesis and 10-week-old Lilly.

"I was an Air Force brat, OK? So I've seen the military from the good and not-so-good ends of it, and I'll tell you this: No veteran should go through some of the stuff he went through," she said.

According to Martin, changing the national attitude about homelessness has been one of the goals of Zero 2016.

Landlords can be reluctant to rent to veterans in need because housing subsidies can bring down the value of a property.

Additionally, most veterans return without a rental or credit history. They also are at a disadvantage because many times they are still seeking work.

"We want to start to shift the culture around homelessness in this community, and we've started moving the needle that way," Martin said. "We've brought new partnerships to the table ... that are engaging the community that this is a moral imperative."

How have landlords taken that message?

"We think the community has been incredibly generous," said Jasmine Tarkoff of the multifaith coalition ACTION (Advocates and Communities Taking Initiative for Our Neighbors), which appeals to landlords in Contra Costa County to open doors for homeless veterans. "We're starting to shift from, 'This is your problem to solve,' to 'We have to solve this problem.'"

Aaron Meadows, a property manager who oversees apartments and condominiums from Richmond to Discovery Bay that have rented to veterans, said the responsibility goes even deeper than that.

"I almost feel like it's a duty for us to help out these veterans," he said. "They sacrificed for us. Now we need to help them."

Sitting in front of a Christmas tree filled with ornaments, Lee and Beverly say they are grateful for the help they've received and wonder what more of it universally could do.

"Nobody should be without a home," Lee said. "I mean, you have more buildings than occupants. How can that be right?"

 

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