Concerns raised in San Diego, where 1,462 new homeless veterans were on the streets last year
By Richard Darvas
July 21, 2011 (San Diego)--In the second in a series of regional stops which include Sacramento and Los Angeles, the California Assembly’s Select Committee on Homelessness convened in San Diego on July 20.
According to a January 2011 report by the national Alliance to End Homelessness, the state’s total estimated homeless population has climbed to 133,129. The mission of these statewide forums, collectively known as “The Road Home,” is to engage the public and policymakers in developing strategies to address the diverse needs of California’s homeless--including a growing homeless population in San Diego and East County.
San Diego’s hearing was chaired by Assemblymember Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego's 76th district. Testimony centered on the County’s populations of homeless veterans and the chronically homeless.
Homeless vets suffer from a host of underlying issues. Over 74 percent struggle with substance abuse; 47 percent contend with medical ailments. Serious psychiatric issues are found in 57 percent. Fifty percent have been living on the street more than two years.
In California, the Select Council on Homelessness has declared homelessness a state emergency. The 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, delivered to the U.S. Congress by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), showed 20.7 percent of the nation’s homeless population belonged to California alone.
San Diego Veteran’s Affairs rendered services to 1,462 newly homeless vets in fiscal year 2010. Speaker of the Assembly John A. Pérez indicated that Californians’ enrollment rate for VA benefits is lower than the national average. Thirty-three percent of California’s homeless vets are classified as Vietnam-era, while at least 36 percent are veterans who more recently served in either the Persian Gulf War or Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF). Of the youngest discharged OEF/OIF vets, Atkins attested that 35,000 will return to California annually.
After a previous visit to Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), a local shelter and service provider for homeless vets, Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher recalled his shock at the high number of OEF/OIF vets he encountered there. Fletcher, who represents San Diego’s 75th district, said he carried a popular misperception that homelessness is predominantly a Vietnam-era problem. “I thought surely we’d learned lessons, and we’d never make that mistake again…If we have the moral authority to send you off to war, we have the moral obligation to care for you when you come home.”
According to Peter Callstrom, executive director of San Diego County’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFHSD), the County has experienced a 19 percent increase in homeless vets since 2008. As of 2011, RTFHSD figures indicate East County accounts for 802 of the region’s total 9,020 homeless, or nearly 9 percent. While the majority is located in the city of San Diego, Callstrom does not downgrade the need to labor on behalf of those in East County. In fact, he explained that the San Diego hearing would have an impact on East County’s local needs.
“Having everybody here together, I think, will lead to more direct, focused services that will address the issue in East County particularly,” Callstrom told ECM. “We know that there’s a high population there. Having this coordinated effort, again, allows us to get resources where people are…Raising awareness will empower the county.”
Federal, state and local levels were all well represented in the panelists.
Anthony Love, deputy director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, outlined details of the national Open Doors plan, the Obama Administration’s directive to eradicate homelessness among veterans by 2015. Love emphasized the need to mobilize resources through collaboration between agencies to achieve such goals as the elimination of redundancies, the streamlining of outreach programs, a move toward permanent supportive housing and targeted job placement.
HUD, with the federal departments of Labor and Veterans Affairs (VA), has partnered to bring a pilot program to Camp Pendleton through Open Doors.
“It is truly groundbreaking,” Love said. “It is designed to explore early interventions to help prevent veteran homelessness.” Before reintegrating into civilian life, Marines are counseled on such issues as health care and employment assistance.
The federal VA will soon announce new funds dedicated to the Supportive Services for Veterans’ Families program. This initiative awards grants to private nonprofits and consumer cooperatives to assist very low income vets to obtain permanent housing. California is due to receive the largest share of these grants.
Love urged state legislators to adopt a state interagency council on homelessness that would mirror the national agency’s efforts. Atkins revealed that she’d co-signed a letter to the governor, asking for the creation of just such a parallel, state-governed council.
In the days preceding this hearing, HUD and the federal VA announced a $10.5 million package in the form of rental housing vouchers for homeless vets. California Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Peter Gravett said that while this investment is beneficial, more help is needed. “Simply throwing money at the problem won’t solve the problem,” Gravett stated. “They also need programs for the aftermath of combat, [to tackle issues] such as mental challenges, substance abuse, roadblocks to employment, job training, career training and educational opportunities.”
Prevention of homelessness for returning soldiers is a key course of action, according to Deputy Secretary for Veterans Services Ted Puntillo. In the last year, Puntillo said that his agency had interviewed over 44,000 vets, mostly newly discharged, and 87 percent reported their number-one priority was landing a job. “That is a panacea for a lot of their ills.” He said employment can help mitigate lingering psychological trauma and loosen the grip of substance abuse.
In addition, Puntillo said that upon return stateside many vets are unaware of their eligibility for $450 in weekly unemployment insurance, lasting up to 18 months. His agency is partnering with the Employment Development Department to educate ex-military on this option of last resort.
Beside the employment factor, San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said a comprehensive approach—one he termed a continuum of care—was critical to fighting homelessness on a local level.
“Stopgap emergency measures fail to break the cycle of homelessness. For some perspective on the level of the County’s investment, in 2009 to ‘10 we funded more than $174 million in programs targeted specifically to those who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless. About $55.8 million of that amount was spent on programs administered by the County’s Health and Human Services Agency, including mental health services.”
Jennifer Schaffer, deputy director of the County’s Health and Human Services Agency, Behavioral Health Division, echoed the supervisor’s commitment to mental health. Highlighting the need to erase housing discrimination perpetrated against the mentally ill, Schaffer referenced the County’s Housing Matters campaign. As a public service, it also advocated treatment in permanent supportive housing to reduce the number of mentally ill living on the streets. Jointly operated by the city and county, Shaffer lauded the collaborative success of the Serial Inebriate Program, which pinpoints individuals with multiple public intoxication arrests and offers rehabilitation in lieu of incarceration.
“One of the reasons we’re experiencing success recently is because we’re finally working together. Agencies are bringing their strengths and core competencies to the table to create a safety net of services.”
Mental Health Systems (MHS) is a nonprofit provider of mental health, drug and alcohol recovery services. Vice President Laura Otis-Miles cited the passage of 2004’s Mental Health Services Act as instrumental to funding new programs for MHS. Notably, one such program is Club Vet, which serves East County’s homeless vets in Santee through supportive services to aid in self-sufficiency and the acquisition of meaningful employment.
At the conclusion of the day’s presentations, VVSD President Phil Landis struck an optimistic note in the wake of mournful acknowledgments about the considerable challenge ahead.
“We are hopeful, because of the collaborations, because of the efforts that we have heard here today…There is a national effort, the likes of which this nation, and no other nation on the face of the earth, has ever seen. And believe me, there’s a lot more that we can do.”
View materials from the hearing at this link: www.asmdc.org/members/a76/issues/the-road-home/hearing-materials.