This article is part of “The Housing Divide: Making it in Long Beach,” a series of stories from the Long Beach Media Collaborative examining the impacts of the statewide housing crisis on our city. The Collaborative was initiated by the Long Beach Community Foundation and is funded by the Knight Foundation.

Those working to find permanent homes for veterans in need find it’s a challenging process, and a ceaseless one, made more difficult due to the lack of affordable housing and prevention programs, experts say.

“It’s a revolving door,” former U.S. VETS Long Beach Executive Director Brenda Threatt said. “More people come every day.”

At any given time, there are an average of 800 veterans receiving services from U.S. VETS, which leases space at the 27-acre Villages at Cabrillo (formerly Cabrillo/Savannah Naval housing), where there are nearly 600 vets in permanent apartments and 200 in transitional residences.

“For this region and for Long Beach, the vast chunk of veterans are here at the Villages,” Threatt said. “This is their home. This is a safe place.”

Providing safe havens for veterans — who are more likely to become homeless and often also are suspicious of anyone who offers assistance — is an important part of the difficult process, Threatt explained. For some, by the time they’re convinced to accept help, living on the streets has already taken too large a toll.

“There was a Vietnam vet from the Marine Corps who was wounded, an Agent Orange victim, and he never went to the VA because people spat on him when he came back from the war,” she said. “By the time he accepted help … he got money for all the years he hadn’t applied for benefits, and he was able to get a house, but he suffered and died four years later.”

Threatt wants to help more vets find permanent homes sooner. Here’s how the process works after someone has accepted assistance: qualified veterans stay in transitional housing and typically wait about nine months — longer if they are a woman or if they have children. 

They are then connected to experts who help them identify income sources, such as disability or unemployment pay, so that qualified veterans can sustainably cover a percentage of their individual housing costs through HUD-VASH (a housing voucher program for vets). The process requires careful coordination among multiple agencies.

“HUD-VASH is income based, but you have to have some income,” Threatt said.

Once they’ve secured steady income, there’s still another hurdle: Finding a home in Long Beach that the veteran can afford, and that a landlord is willing to rent out to someone with a housing voucher.

“We have to dig to find some place that is affordable,” Threatt said about cases when there aren’t spaces available at the Villages at Cabrillo. “SoCal is expensive.”

Echoing concerns about the affordability of housing for veterans in need is Dustin Halliwell, the coordinated entry system coordinator for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Long Beach. Halliwell, also a veteran, is a psychologist and licensed clinical social worker.

“Once you get the voucher, finding housing isn’t easy,” he said. “The cost of living is so high, and it’s so competitive, and there’s no rent control. And because landlords aren’t amenable to taking these vouchers, it’s even harder.”

Halliwell said incentives for landlords are badly needed, and so too are education efforts to make landowners realize that veterans have support systems such as the VA and U.S. VETS that help them stabilize and remain in permanent housing.

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center reported that there currently are 855 active HUD-VASH vouchers being used in the city or going through the filing process. The VA reports that 89 veterans with approved vouchers are actively looking for places they can afford to live in Long Beach.

City officials said 518 homeless veterans were moved into permanent housing in 2017 and 2018 and another 584 housed in 2015 and 2016.

Nationally, U.S. Housing and Urban Development estimates that veteran homelessness is on the decline. HUD’s annual assessment counted 37,878 homeless vets in 2018, representing a decrease of 5.4% over the previous year, and nearly half the number of homeless veterans reported in 2010. 

HUD officials credit the effectiveness of the HUD-VASH program with the decrease. In 2017 alone, more than 4,000 vets nationwide were placed in permanent homes through HUD-VASH, according to HUD.

Overall, for veterans and others alike, Long Beach’s 2019 Biennial Homeless Count released in June identified 1,894 people experiencing homelessness, representing a slight 2% increase over the last count in 2017. 

But, like anyone without a roof over their head, it’s difficult to specifically identify and count today’s homeless veterans who move across city and county lines freely. Further complicating the issue is that organizations such as U.S. VETS and Long Beach’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center work regionally rather than within strict city limits.

“The systems don’t talk to each other, and the numbers are very fluid,” Threatt said. “Folks are always coming in and out… It doesn’t feel as rosy as the numbers and pictures appear. We house veterans every day.”

Veterans have access to more resources, including dedicated transitional housing, but Halliwell said there are additional challenges. He said it takes synergy, which Long Beach has, with the city and VA and other organizations to make an impact.

“It’s difficult to build a sense of trust with veterans and get them the right information,” the Army veteran, who served in Iraq, said. “I’m a combat vet and I know first-hand how important it is to empower vets so they know what resources are there…

“I was a client of the VA long before I became an employee. It was instrumental in turning my life around and my healing process. It’s a complete shock to come back from combat into real life.”

Few people understand the struggles faced by veterans better than veterans themselves, such as Halliwell and Threatt. Threatt has her own military background, and helping homeless veterans is even more personal for her because her brother is a Vietnam veteran who has struggled.

“My brother has been with U.S. VETS in Inglewood for about six months now,” she said. “They helped him go to the VA and get his back pay… He is doing wonderfully now and is about to get housed and has a HUD-VASH voucher. He needed someone to walk him through the process, and he didn’t know I work here. He’s been disconnected from family — he’s been roaming around for 30 years.”

Veterans with all-too-similar stories discover a sense of camaraderie and community at U.S. VETS that is unique, with planned group activities and support built in to the living environment that boasts a permanent housing success rate of 87%, Threatt said. She believes the organization’s success depends on helping veterans adjust and not fall back into old habits.

“I’ve been told, ‘This is a great place to live and a great place to die,’” Threatt said about residents who call the Villages their forever home. 

Still, Threatt sees room for improvement, especially when it comes to preventing veterans from becoming homeless in the first place.

She’s not alone. Halliwell said he hopes to see rapid resolution programs, currently being piloted in other cities, come to Long Beach to help identify people at-risk of becoming homeless and keep them from becoming so.

“Currently, it’s only once they are homeless that we do the assessments and applications, but if there’s intervention first, then there’s a ray of hope that we can help them before they get really desperate,” he said.

Legislators also working on the problem in coordination with partners such as the VA, U.S. VETS, Mental Health America and other organizations, according to Homeless Services Officer Shannon Parker with the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services.

“If a veteran is homeless and wants to be permanently housed, those resources are available,” Parker said. “We are doing a good job of continually, every year, expanding the number of resources available.”

She emphasized that veterans have access to veteran-specific housing and other resources unavailable to other citizens, and she said city staffers are relentless in their efforts to help vets and others get off the street.

“When they say no, we never give up on the possibility of yes,” Parker said. “That’s our motto with the city of Long Beach team. It takes an average of 17 contacts with a person before they say yes, so we have a high tolerance for rejection, and we keep coming back to build trust.”

Where there’s more room for improvement, Parker agreed, is in the area of rapid resolution and diversion. She said that’s largely due to a lack of flexibility in the way cities can use dedicated funding.

“The challenge is that we don’t want more veterans to fall into homelessness, and so if there’s an area where we can focus, let’s bring to bear programs that keep vets in housing in the first place and make dollars flexible to respond to the needs.”

Alison King, deputy executive director of the Long Beach Housing Authority, said that with the resources available today, she’s excited about much of the work the city and its community partners are doing to help homeless veterans. Especially in identifying affordable housing in a challenging market, she highlighted a new development, The Beacon, on Anaheim Street in West Long Beach, that soon will offer 34 units of housing for veterans. 

Besides advocating for more affordable units on the market, King agreed that there’s still more work to be done in prevention.

“There’s not much of a parachute until you actually fall out,” King said. “Rapid rehousing dollars are limited. If I had my wish, it would be to truly identify people before they are in a dire situation.”