Housing crisis a challenge for veterans services in Nevada County
February 1, 2018
Wet, cold and losing weight fast, Matthew Coulter decided it was time to reach out for help.
"I had nothing to lose," he recalls, looking back on that moment four years later.
The U.S. Marine Corps and Army Airborne veteran had been sleeping in tents and in the back of his truck for the better part of two years.
Injuries he'd sustained from his military service and a bike accident in Grass Valley made it difficult to hold down a job, he said. He couldn't keep up with rent payments.
Coulter was reluctant to seek assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs or other social services programs, he said, due to past negative experiences with time-consuming paperwork and a lack of immediate answers from government agencies.
"It's this whole level of bureaucracy," he said. "It was always, 'Hurry up and wait.' I was tired of the disappointment."
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Coulter found help through Welcome Home Vets, a nonprofit based in Grass Valley that provides services, referrals and advocacy for veterans. The support offered by volunteers there made Coulter feel welcome, he said.
Eventually, Welcome Home Vets helped Coulter link up with a social worker from the Department of Veterans Affairs office in Auburn and he found out he was qualified for a program that provides rental assistance to veterans.
Three years after he initially reached out for help, he said, he moved into an apartment in Grass Valley, where he's now lived for over a year. The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program — a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA — pays for about two-thirds of his rent.
Though Coulter said he has issues with the living conditions at his new unit, he considers himself lucky.
"I'm a lot healthier now than I've been in previous years … I'm grateful every time I open my door," he said.
Ed Sanchez, a volunteer with Welcome Home Vets, said he often meets homeless veterans who, like Coulter was, aren't utilizing the social services available to them.
"Many of them don't reach out because they're distrustful of the system," Sanchez said. "The system may have failed them in the past or given them bureaucratic headaches."
In an effort to connect with those veterans, Welcome Home Vets teamed up with the Nevada City Elks Lodge last year to distribute backpacks stocked with clothes, toiletries, resource information cards and messages of support.
The organizations distributed about 30 "life packs" to homeless veterans in the area.
"The idea was pretty simple: meet a homeless veteran and offer a no-strings-attached life pack to help make them comfortable," said Dorothy Rhodes, a volunteer with the Elks Lodge.
Sanchez said if even one homeless veteran reaches out for help as a result of the initiative, he'd consider it a success.
"Our objective is to say, 'If you're ready to make a change, we're ready to help you,'" he said.
'FEW AND FAR BETWEEN'
But outreach is only the first obstacle for those providing services to homeless veterans, Sanchez said.
"The bigger problem is, OK, someone comes in for help, now what?" he said.
Like other social services agencies helping homeless get off the street, the biggest challenge for those working with homeless veterans is a lack of available housing.
Karen Carmichael, a social worker with the Veterans Affairs office in Auburn, faces that problem on a daily basis.
Carmichael links veterans with Supportive Housing vouchers and works to find landlords that will accept rental payments from the program.
"The difficulty is that the rates (the veterans) are looking for are about $850 to $900 per month for a one-bedroom, and those are few and far between … It's very challenging," Carmichael said.
Supportive housing vouchers for veterans are part of the Housing Choice program, formerly known as Section 8.
In Nevada County, and other nearby counties, that program is coordinated by the Regional Housing Authority.
According to Gustavo Becerra, the agency's executive director, vouchers for veterans are kept separate from other Housing Choice vouchers and are considered a priority by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which means vets don't have to join the sometimes years-long waiting list to qualify for a voucher.
The agency has been allotted 21 vouchers for veterans in Nevada County by the federal government.
The veterans housing program began in 2015 and, according to Becerra, took some time to get off the ground.
But today, all 21 vouchers are being utilized by veterans.
"In Nevada County, our veterans vouchers have never been 100 percent utilized until recently," Becerra said. "This is new territory for us."
Carmichael said there isn't a waiting list of veterans hoping to receive vouchers, but nonetheless, if someone were to seek help, the system would be maxed-out. The Regional Housing Authority could likely request additional vouchers from the federal government, she said, but the lack of available, affordable housing would still be the biggest problem.
"If we had 30 vouchers, we'd be facing the issue that they're not all going to be able to be utilized … The housing market is difficult," she said.
Carmichael hopes that through diligent case management, she can build the housing program's credibility with landlords.
"Once veterans are housed, this case management is for the life of the program … For landlords, the good piece is that it's a safety net."
Social workers like Carmichael work to address concerns landlords might have and ensure things are going smoothly for the veterans in the program.
Protected from the elements by a roof over his head, Coulter now has the energy to focus on what's important to him.
He's spending more time volunteering with local nonprofits, including Sammie's Friends, and is engaged in local politics, constantly asking questions and demanding answers of city officials.
Through his experience asking for help, Coulter said he's learned to shake the thought that using social services sets others back.
"I always felt like if I took advantage of these things being offered, I'd be taking away from someone else," he said. "But I realized the more I utilize, the more I can help others and get them involved, because I understand how the system works."
Coulter's advice to any homeless veteran considering using social services is to be persistent.
"Don't think you'll get something right away," he said.
He recommends veterans ask for help from every possible outlet available. Each service might help with only a fraction of what's needed, he said, but when pieced together, the right support is out there.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4231.