When Army veteran Mark Townsend left the military service in the early ’70s, a decades-long battle with substance abuse and homelessness was just beginning.
Addiction marred Townsend’s transition to civilian life and reduced him to living what he calls a “life of drinking and using.” That life led to legal troubles, mental health issues and a lack of stable housing.
Townsend, now 54, says he repeatedly tried to get help. “I’ve been in and out of the VA several times, trying to get clean and sober, and couldn’t.”
Last August, he entered a residential substance abuse treatment program and was soon told of a federal program that could get him into subsidized housing while providing counseling and treatment for his addiction.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program (VASH) is a two-pronged approach to reduce homelessness among veterans. It couples government-subsidized rental vouchers from local, public housing authorities with case-managed assistance and clinical care provided by VA medical centers. When created, the program tasked a VA system already strained from the rising number of returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — with the new responsibility of managing a supportive housing program.
Although the VASH initiative began in 1992 with a small allotment of vouchers, significant funding started in 2008 with the allocation of 10,000 additional vouchers. The program has increased to about 50,000 vouchers As a result, veteran homelessness was reduced by 12 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA.
Within four months, Townsend was assigned a case manager to help him through the steps needed to obtain housing. But his transition into housing was not without difficulty, and some city officials and social service workers say the same problems Townsend faced are keeping the VASH program from being fully utilized — more than 25 percent of the vouchers now issued to Portland are unused.
Townsend’s history with drug abuse left him with a police record, including felonies, which he says caused two potential landlords to deny his application. Also, though the voucher covers the monthly rent, it doesn’t address the other expenses required to get into housing. For Townsend, this meant he had to come up with a $600 deposit for his apartment.
According to Dr. Chris Anderson, program manager for the Portland VA’s mental health clinics in Vancouver, the biggest barrier to getting homeless veterans into housing, even with the support of the VASH program, is finding landlords willing to rent to them.
Additional barriers preventing more veterans from getting into housing are found in the program’s design. Ultimately, Townsend was able to overcome the obstacles. Two months after starting to work with his case manager, Townsend was living in Vancouver, Wash., in an apartment paid for with a VASH voucher. As of last month, Townsend has been clean and sober for a year and is one of more than the 33,000 veterans provided with permanent housing because of the VASH program.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that about 67,000 veterans were homeless during a one-night count in 2011, and as many as one in six adults staying in homeless shelters are veterans. Those who have worn a military uniform are nearly twice as likely as civilians to become homeless.
According to the Portland Housing Bureau, it’s estimated that more than 1,400 veterans experienced homelessness at some point last year. On any given night, 220 people living unsheltered in the Portland area self-identified as veterans and an additional 240 are in shelters or transitional housing. In all, veterans account for an estimated 12.4 percent of Portland’s homeless population.
The application of the VASH program begins at HUD, which distributes the vouchers to local public housing authorities, who then issue them. But according to HUD spokesman Leland Jones, the VA handles the majority of the legwork.
“We provide the housing resource,” Jones says. “The actual identification and referral of a veteran for the program is essentially done by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They are essentially doing the intake and referring (qualified veterans) to the housing authorities, which have the vouchers.
Locally, Home Forward, Portland’s public housing agency, has been given a total of 305 vouchers to date, and 200 veterans are currently living in housing paid for by VASH vouchers. Another 22 veterans have been assigned vouchers and are currently looking for apartments. The remaining 83 vouchers are left unused.
Unlike other housing vouchers, VASH removes nearly all of the restrictions that would otherwise disqualify a person from tradition supportive housing, says Jill Riddle, rental assistance coordinator at Home Forward.
“A normal voucher couldn’t be issued to someone who had maybe recent drug or violent criminal activity on their record, and there are no screening requirements for us to conduct except for registered sex offenders,” Riddle says.
Additionally, VASH vouchers are funded separately from other subsidized housing programs, which allow homeless veterans to bypass the waitlists at most public housing authorities.
Anderson says that although the VASH program is subsidized housing, it’s not really a housing program. “It’s really a case-management program,” he says. “It’s for those individuals who, without the help of case management and a social worker helping them and walking them through the steps, would not be able, most likely, to get housing on their own.”
City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, says that the VASH program is effective because it combines the need for housing with the need for other care and services. With this housing first model, the veterans can become stabilized to receive employment counseling, clinical care, and mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Targeting the homeless veteran population is warranted. Veterans generally have higher rates of PTSD, traumatic brain injury and sexual trauma, all of which increase individuals’ risk of homelessness, according to the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. About half of homeless veterans, they say, have serious mental illness, while 70 percent suffer from substance abuse problems. And about half of homeless veterans have criminal records, and homeless veterans are more likely to live outdoors, unsheltered and experience long-term, chronic homelessness, according to the Council.
“Each veteran (in the program) presents his own unique challenges,” says Anderson. “A lot of them have really poor credit. A lot of them have evictions on their record. A lot have mental health issues that have prevented them from being comfortable getting inside and staying indoors.”
According to the Portland VA Medical Center, which is responsible for administering the program in Portland and the surrounding region, as of June, it was providing case management to 447 veterans, 414 of whom had secured housing and were currently renting apartments with their vouchers
Bobby Weinstock, housing consultant for Northwest Pilot Project, the Portland non-profit that provides housing services for seniors, says the fact that the legislation gave responsibility of the VASH program to the VA medical system was a mistake from the beginning.
“They basically gave the VA medical centers across the country responsibility for ending homelessness among veterans,” Weinstock says. “And these are hospitals. These are medical centers; they didn’t have any experience ending homelessness and operating programs to end homelessness.”
Commissioner Fish says that after studying how the city and Home Forward administered its subsidized housing program, he found the local VASH numbers were falling short. Though Fish has no direct oversight of the federal program, in 2009 he arranged to bring members of his staff and a representative from Home Forward to the Portland VA medical center to meet with the medical director to discuss where improvements could be made.
The process of identifying and referring homeless veterans to the VASH program is where Fish feels there is the largest need for improvement.
“One of the challenges is that, while the housing authority administers the program, the success of the program depends on the ability of the Veterans Administration to match a veteran with a services they need and to help them obtain housing,” says Fish. “We ask the VA to take on a significant amount of red tape and bureaucracy to make referrals to the VASH program. At a time when everyone is stretched thin and working with fewer resources, that may not be the most efficient way to deliver this vital resource to vets in need.”
Fish says the system could be improved by relying more on the city’s existing resources.
“We need to tweak the model to give the VA networks greater flexibility to contract with non-profits to, in effect, do the function of linking people with services and housing,” Fish says. “They have more experience and competency in this area. Rather than create a parallel bureaucracy at the VA, we ought to tap into the experience of our non-profit partners.”
For some working within the social services system, waiting for the VA to act is frustrating.
“We don’t get adequate referrals,” says Riddle. “(We get) very slow, inadequate referrals.”
Another problem that has plagued the program, according to Weinstock and others, is that the legislation does not include funding for other costs associated with moving, such as application fees, moving costs and utility-connect fees.
“If veteran doesn’t have an income sufficient to cover those kinds of moving costs and up-front fees, they are going to face a barrier to leasing up their VASH voucher,” Weinstock says. “Those kinds of financial tools are critical to being able to successfully transition people from homelessness to housing.”
Complicating the problem, staffing issues within the VA have further weakened the effectiveness of the VASH program in the Portland area.
Fish says that after bringing his delegation to the VA, the program’s leadership was changed at the Portland VA Medical Center. But according to Dr. Anderson and staff at the VA, high levels of turnover throughout the program and a slow hiring process are keeping the program from being fully staffed.
According to Weinstock, staffing seems to have been a problem since the early days of the program.
“Because the VA didn’t have a lot of expertise in this area of ending homelessness, they were very slow to bring on staff and train the staff and set up the program that would be necessary to actually implement it,” he said. “So, literally, for years the program was hardly operating.”
This year, the VA opened the Community Resource and Referral Center in downtown Portland to serve as an accessible drop-in center where veterans can be matched to needed services. Social workers, community partners and various program-specific service workers cycle through the clinic throughout the week.
Additionally, Portland is one of a handful of cities using a new pilot program to identify an especially vulnerable population of homeless veterans. The Assertive Community Treatment team specializes in identifying those homeless veterans who have severe mental illness and have withdrawn from the benefits system. According to Anderson, 50 VASH vouchers are reserved for that team.
“We’ve been slowly filing up that team,” Anderson says. “It goes slower than what you would think as far as identifying those folks. It’s not that they’re not out there, it’s that they don’t always want to come to us.”
In June, Congress approved the funding for 10,000 additional vouchers which, if approved by the Senate and President, would increase the total number of VASH vouchers to around 60,000. Early estimates by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans suggested that nearly 90,000 vouchers might be needed.
And in a move that could help address one area in which the VASH program falls short, the VA announced in July that $100 million in grants were made available to private non-profits and other community agencies providing services to homeless veterans.
Fish says he is encouraged by the progress that has been made in the VASH program and he commends both the VA and Portland’s local non-profits.
“In 2009 it wasn’t working very well, and in 2012 there is tremendous coordination,” says Fish. “We can always do better, but we’ve taken a giant step forward.”
Despite the improvements made to the VASH program, some say there remains room for improvement.
“I don’t think that we’ve worked out the kinks in the relationship between the VA medical center and the housing authorities yet,” Riddle says. “We’ve made progress, but there’s a lot of room for improvement. We could be utilizing more of these vouchers much more quickly.”
Weinstock agrees, but adds that there is a human side to inefficiency.
“Every month that one of these VASH vouchers goes unused, that’s another, in the Portland area, $700 floating away,” he said. “More importantly, that’s another homeless vet that has to be outside or in a shelter or in their car. That’s the big moral problem.”