The federal government is trying to end homelessness among veterans by 2015, a lofty goal as the nation gears up to accommodate an additional 1 million service members set to return home from war in the next five years.
WASHINGTON — Darren Spencer, a 39-year-old Army veteran from Tacoma, found himself homeless after losing his $15.45-an-hour job as a furniture mover a year ago.
He takes pills for his depression and has trouble hearing. He has no car. And his unemployment benefits ran out in December.
But Spencer considers himself lucky on one count: In August, he got a voucher from the federal government to help pay the $725 monthly rent for his apartment in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, where he lives with his 18-year-old son, Lamont.
“I still have a lot of stress, but that’s one thing I don’t have to stress about,” Spencer said. “It’s still hard, but at least now I have a place to stay.”
Most Read Local Stories
- This says it all: Congressman proposes 'Masks Off Act' for schools as 29% of COVID cases in his area are in schoolchildren
- Lack of answers is excruciating for family of man found shot to death at Seattle's Gas Works Park
- Wondering why society went off-kilter during the pandemic? It was all predicted in this book
- Kent man killed, Cougar football player injured in shooting near WSU campus
- Coronavirus daily news updates, September 25: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
Spencer is among the thousands of beneficiaries of a federal effort to end all homelessness among veterans by 2015. It’s a lofty goal as the nation gears up to accommodate an additional 1 million service members set to return home from war in the next five years.
To get the job done, President Obama and the Department of Veterans Affairs are thinking big, asking Congress to increase spending for veteran homeless programs by 33 percent next year, to $1.35 billion.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state is the champion of the cause, making the issue a centerpiece of her tenure as chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Last year, when some House Republicans proposed eliminating 10,000 housing vouchers to save $75 million from the 2011 federal budget, Murray led the fight to reinstate the money. At the time, Republicans defended the plan by saying many of the vouchers were not being used, but the program has won bipartisan backing and critics have been largely silent this year.
“I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me on the street, who tell me stories of having lived on the streets, out of Dumpsters, in horrible conditions, and because of a voucher have got a place to live and are now back. My passion comes from that,” Murray said in an interview.
Murray, who also heads the Senate Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, called the president’s latest budget request “absolutely essential” and said the administration’s timetable is laudable.
“We’d all like to end it (homelessness) tomorrow,” she said. “But it’s the first time they’ve set a goal of doing this, which really focuses everybody on what we are doing.”
Last week, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent out $73 million in voucher aid to public-housing agencies in all 50 states, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan called the level of homelessness among veterans a “national disgrace.”
According to the government’s latest count, 67,495 of the nation’s 22 million veterans were homeless in 2011. That’s a 12 percent drop from a year earlier, when 76,329 veterans were living in emergency shelters or in their cars, abandoned buildings or on the streets. If Congress approves the funding, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress last month, the number of homeless veterans will fall to 35,000 next year.
But Murray, the first woman to lead the Senate veterans committee, is none too pleased with the VA’s performance in one key area: She says far too many female veterans are falling through the cracks and getting inferior service when they do find their way to government shelters.
While the overall numbers have declined, the number of homeless female veterans more than doubled from 2006 to 2010, going from 1,380 to 3,328.
A report by the VA’s inspector general last month found serious safety and security shortcomings facing women in shelters, especially those who experienced sexual trauma in the military. Investigators found women being assigned to mixed-gender facilities with bedrooms and bathrooms lacking sufficient locks, and halls and stairs without proper lighting. In one case, a woman and her 18-month-old son were assigned to a building that housed a homeless male veteran who was a registered sex offender.
“Sometimes they stay on the street because it’s more safe than going into a facility that doesn’t have locked doors or separate bathrooms,” Murray said. “Or in some cases where these women have children, there’s no place for their children. That is really an outrage to me.”
Spencer, who served six years in the military after joining at age 18, said he has been frustrated with the VA because he wants more help with his mental-health issues. He believes he suffers from post-traumatic-stress disorder but has received medication only for depression.
“It’s just been pill after pill after pill,” he said.
For the past 15 years, he said, he has worked a variety of jobs, including grinding metal at a foundry, working as a warehouse shipping clerk and forklift operator, even helping produce a radio show. He said he had to file for bankruptcy in 2005 and that it has been difficult to maintain a job or a place to live.
“No matter how much I tried, every two steps I would go forward there would be five steps taking me back,” he said. “It just seemed like somebody had their foot on my neck and I could not get up.”
Each voucher, which is provided by HUD’s Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, is worth roughly $7,500, with veterans paying no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. Local housing programs help HUD and the VA administer the program.
As a result of last week’s announcement, Washington will receive 325 new vouchers, and more are expected by the end of summer.
Since losing his unemployment benefits, Spencer said he has been relying on “the grace of God” to survive, along with timely temporary jobs such as helping friends or acquaintances move.
And without a federal housing voucher, he said, he has no doubts that he’d be homeless again.
“It’s been a big load off of my shoulders,” Spencer said. “And it just feels good to be able to say I have a place to stay, and my kid has a place to lay his head.”