[Photo: Military seals]
Military seals

PORTLAND - "Infuriating!" That's how Sally Erickson of the Portland Housing Bureau reacted to news that HUD rental assistance to house homeless veterans was going unused, reports The Oregonian's Mike Francis, "leaving thousands of dollars on the table" and leaving a hundred or so vets to fend for themselves on the street. Not exactly the way the world's supposed to work.

In 2008, Congress established the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program (HUDVASH) to help veterans who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness get a place to call home. It provides vouchers that enable income-eligible veterans referred by the VA to local housing authorities to rent a privately-owned apartment and pay only about 30 percent of their income to rent. HUDVASH covers the difference between that amount and the full rent.

It's a very popular Federal program. So much so that it's one of a very few explicitly exempted from the across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Sequestration. To date, HUD's awarded more than 3,200 HUDVASH vouchers to some 20 housing authorities across Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Home Forward - the housing authority serving Portland and Multnomah County - has won 305 of them.

But even great programs have glitches. "The problem," writes The Oregonian's Francis, is that HUDVASH funds can be "spent solely on rent assistance -- not security deposits, application fees, utilities, identification cards or other costs associated with finding a place to rent." That "kept some otherwise-eligible renters from seeking an apartment. For want of a nail," he says, "a battle to house veterans was being lost." The result? As late as September, 2012, a third of Portland's 305 HUDVASH were unallocated and 100 homeless vets who needed housing weren't getting it.

From the get-go, Home Forward had spent some $150,000 to pay veterans' security deposits. But, other incidentals weren't being covered. Which is why, in collaboration with the VA, the Portland Housing Bureau, Multnomah County the United Way and Home Forward stepped-up to launch Operation 305, each of the four contributing $10,000 of their own funds to cover other move-in incidentals and also helping the VA streamline, expand and speed-up the process by Operation 305 partners could refer vets to the VA. Administered by the nonprofit JOIN, by April, 2013 Operation 305 could report that 100 percent of the 305 vouchers were in use. Dollars once left on the table, observes Francis, were "now out the door."

That's made a lot of people happy. People like Lecester Shakier, 36, an Army veteran "rendered quadriplegic a dozen years ago by a piece of horseplay." After seven months of living in a car, he now has a two-bedroom apartment in Gresham. "I made it in by the hairs of my chinny chin chin," he tells Francis. He pays $444 a month, his HUDVASH voucher covering the $356 balance each month. And he got $50 from Operation 305 to furnish the place. "I feel like I'm in the race now," he says.

Or people like Becky Kempton, 30, deployed to Iraq in 2007 as a member of the Oregon National Guard. She provided security for convoys.

A single mom, she returned home, worked part-time and pursued a college degree. Iraq caught up to her. "I collapsed and ended up in the hospital with PTSD," she tells the Bureau. Two weeks later, she lost the place she called home and moved in with her family. By last December, she and her 8-year-old son Nate-O were homeless. "We will have a new home by Christmas," she promised. Thanks to her "amazing" VA caseworker and HUDVASH, they moved into their northeast Portland home December 20th.

There are 303 other stories like Becky's and Lee's. And if, as anticipated, more HUDVASH vouchers are awarded, there'll be still more. And thanks to Operation 305 and the VA, Portland will ready, willing and obviously able to quickly deploy them.

Which, of course, is the way the world should work. Veterans have served us. It's our turn to serve them.


Content Archived: February 9, 2015