Innovation Brings Homeless Veterans Indoors

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Innovation Brings Homeless Veterans Indoors
Innovation Brings Homeless Veterans Indoors

“You see too many homeless veterans on the street,” says Robert Ettinger, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter #391 San Diego Homeless Veterans Program Coordinator. “These are my brothers and sisters, and they deserve better.”

In San Diego County, California, housing is tight for everyone. The internet has made short-term rentals so lucrative for property owners willing to rent a spare room or a whole house that there’s almost no financial incentive for owners of apartment buildings or homes to participate in the government-subsidized housing programs that serve those most in need.

Ettinger, a Purple-Heart Vietnam Era combat veteran of the United States Navy, takes homelessness personally. He was homeless for more than a year after his military service and knows from experience how difficult it can be. “I cruise the East Village around Petco Park and it’s a shame we’ve let people sink this low.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer has recently tried to turn this tide however. Mayor Faulconer authorized several million dollars in incentives to property owners who are willing to rent to formerly homeless veterans. Furthermore, the San Diego Housing Commission is also handing out funding to owners when certain program requirements are met. This in its entirety is the “Housing Our Heroes” initiative which intends to place 1,000 veterans in affordable housing, and soon.

“I get it,” says David Reichbart, owner of several downtown properties with a combined total of more than 400 units, “but they are going at it all wrong.”

The City of San Diego rents one of Reichbart’s downtown buildings on a “master lease” basis. This means the city, via the Housing Commission, simply keeps the units in that building full from its long list of people needing homes.

That is why when Ettinger isn’t spending time at the San Diego Veterans Administration Healthcare System hospital in La Jolla or the Oceanside Clinic he finds himself riding around the downtown San Diego streets on his electric scooter searching for homeless veterans who want to come indoors. Multiple war wounds don’t keep Ettinger from finding, assisting and inspiring veterans down on their luck.

It had taken Ettinger more than four years to convince Reichbart, who is his landlord, to make a dramatic change in housing availability in downtown San Diego but that change finally came however when, in February 2016, Reichbart personally pledged 400 of his units for subsidized veteran housing. Since that moment Reichbart has been collaborating with Ettinger to find homeless veterans to fill those units.

“I get calls from veterans referred by 2-1-1 San Diego, from agencies with Supportive Services for Veterans and Families [Federal SSVF] grants, and from Veterans with VASH [Veterans Administration Subsidized Housing] vouchers looking for a place to move in NOW,” says Ettinger. “It’s overwhelming.”

The process of placing a voucher-holding veteran in a home seems like it would be straightforward but in reality it’s actually complicated by a lot of bureaucratic policies and can be a big financial risk for a property owner if the veteran cannot continue to pay rent after government assistance runs out. “We want to make sure ‘Housing First’ carries veterans from the street to self-sufficiency,” says Mike Judd, SSVF Program Manager for Veterans Village of San Diego, “and that six or nine months from now our clients are able to pay their own rent and their other costs of living.”

When that doesn’t happen lost rent and eviction proceedings may be in store which just doesn’t seem fair to owners who are “doing the right thing” for homeless folks. In the case of San Diego’s master lease with Reichbart his risk of tenants that can’t pay is limited since the city steps up to fill vacancies when they occur.

As far as vouchers go a VASH voucher lasts for the life of the veteran who holds one. VASH-holding veterans are great tenants for owners who want consistent income and stability. VASH vouchers come with some restrictions, such as certain rules which prohibit a VASH tenant from offering extended couch surfing to friends. Along with those rules VASH tenants are also expected to undergo regular inspections by VASH staff as that is a required part of the deal. While this can work out well for small property owners things can become complicated when multiple hundreds of units are under consideration because the VASH and SSVF programs and processes just don’t scale up well. “It’s like the VA tried to do for housing what they’ve done for health care,” says Ettinger.

In spite of these obstacles Ettinger and Reichbart remain undaunted. They realize that it takes time to place a client in one of Reichbart’s available units but Ettinger and Reichbart have already responded to at least two urgent calls for help, providing a much needed home for a single mother in one case and an almost-homeless man in another. “It’s slow, for now, but it’s working,” says Ettinger. “We are working with the Mayor’s Office, the San Diego Housing Commission, 2-1-1, Veterans Village, Volunteers of America, and number of other local agencies to find a more streamlined solution – one that can serve 10, 20, or 50 veterans at a time without a lot of red tape.”

When that solution happens Ettinger and Reichbart hope that it will ignite a new wave of homeless-to-housed progress in downtown San Diego that will help carry the entire county’s homeless population home.