California’s population of homeless veterans has plateaued despite billions of dollars in state spending to create housing for former military service members. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to shift the state’s resources to focus on veterans with serious mental health conditions.
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California has poured billions of dollars into finding homes for unhoused veterans, but the number of former military service members living on the street has held steady for almost a decade. Today, a third of the nation’s unhoused veterans are in California.
Tori Gibson of San Francisco is one of them. She’s been looking for a stable place to live since she left the Navy seven years ago, and it hasn’t been easy for her. She left the service in part because of health issues that continue to debilitate her.
Now 32 and undergoing a gender transition, she’s struggling to make ends meet.
“It was just a really bad spiral of just more disability and then less money and no support,” she said.
She’s searching for a new start as Gov. Gavin Newsom proposes a significant change in the state’s strategy for ending veteran homelessness. His plan, included in a $6.4 billion mental health bond he’s sending to voters in the March primary election, would set aside funding specifically for veterans with serious behavioral health conditions.
That’s a shift from California’s last two major efforts to fund housing for veterans, both of which created units for a general population of former military service members.
The first effort began in the late 1990s, when the state built seven new veterans’ homes over a period of 17 years. Today those veterans homes are underused. They were built to house about 2,400 people, but only 1,575 veterans live in them. The 300-unit veterans home in Barstow was so underutilized in 2020 that Newsom moved to close it as he braced for a pandemic recession, although lawmakers blocked him from shutting the site.
The second push centered on a pair of ballot measures voters approved in 2014 and in 2018 that allocated $4.6 billion to build housing specifically for former military service members. The money created the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program, which has supported the construction of about 3,250 housing units for veterans to date.
Veterans advocates and state officials view the programs — along with federal efforts led by the Department of Veterans Affairs — as successful in reducing homelessness among former military service members. In the last 12 years, veteran homelessness in California has decreased by more than 30%.
But the trend in California mostly accounts for gains made during the Obama administration, when veteran homelessness peaked nationwide and the Department of Veterans Affairs moved aggressively to place former troops in housing. Since 2014, the number of homeless veterans in California has mostly plateaued around 10,000 to 12,000 people, according to annual counts released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the high numbers of veteran homelessness result from the challenges veterans face on returning home in California's competitive housing market.
“When housing markets are unaffordable and incredibly competitive, those with the greatest needs are going to be more likely to fall out,” he said.
Newsom’s new strategy in the mental health bond, advocates say, should help those most in need. The California Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that half of the state’s unhoused veterans suffer from some kind of behavioral health issue.
The money in the bond would go to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which would work with CalVet “to focus specifically on housing veterans experiencing behavioral health challenges,” said Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, the Thousand Oaks Democrat who wrote the bill that ultimately put the bond on the ballot.
Studies have shown veterans are overrepresented in the nation’s homeless population. They may experience personal challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorders or other mental health issues as well as disabilities related to their military service.
“Transitioning from that very specific culture and society to civilian life is a lifelong process,” said Amy Fairweather, director of policy at the veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares. “If you do have any physical or mental disabilities, dealing with those and trying to re-enter civilian life can be very difficult.”
California’s veterans homes
California’s long history of providing housing to former military service members dates to 1884, when it opened an estate in Napa County as the state’s first veterans home. That site is still in operation, housing around 600 veterans on a picturesque property in wine country.
Altogether, the state now has eight veterans homes. The two largest homes are in fairly remote communities — one is in Napa County’s Yountville and the second is in Barstow in the Mojave Deserts. Moving to them can mean living at a long distance from a veteran’s family. That geography somewhat limits interest in the homes.
The homes account for the lion’s share of CalVet’s $650 million annual budget. Some advocates have called on the state to put money into programs that would benefit people who don’t necessarily want to live in a veterans home.
“The state should keep its promises to the current home residents, but as things change, the program needs to be less structured on just providing room and board for a very limited number of people and more structured on providing skilled nursing facility care for those who need it,” said Ethan Rarick, executive director at Little Hoover Commission, which published a report on the veterans homes in 2017.
Outside of the veterans homes, California approved a series of bonds meant to help military service members find housing beginning in 2008. The Veterans Bond Act, passed that year, provided $900 million to veterans through the CalVet Home Loans Program.
In 2014, California passed an initiative creating the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Program, which put $600 million toward building multi-family homes for veterans. A second ballot initiative in 2018 gave another $4 billion to the program.
The federal Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, has kept up steady funding for housing vouchers that can provide a place to live for former troops. The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, commonly known as HUD-VASH, was a centerpiece of the Bush and Obama administration’s efforts to curb veterans’ homelessness. It provides rental assistance to over 100,000 veterans nationally.
A steep drop in veteran homelessness
The number of homeless veterans in the U.S. peaked in the Great Recession, when the VA in 2007 reported some 154,000 former troops were homeless.
At that time, Fairweather of Swords to Plowshares said many of those deployed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were starting to come back home “to a society that wasn’t prepared for it.”
On top of that, they and older veterans struggled in the economic downturn, which led to more unemployment and homelessness.
“It all came together in a way that was really disadvantageous to the veterans,” she said.
Last year, the VA estimated about 33,000 veterans were homeless nationwide. According to the 2021 annual homelessness assessment report by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than half of them are over age 55. The data also shows that Black veterans are more likely to be homeless than veterans belonging to other races.
Advocates say veterans can be reluctant to ask for help.
“When veterans ultimately fall down that hole into homelessness, what is happening along with that is that they're losing connection with friends and family, because they're ashamed that their life is falling apart and it's hard for them to ask for help,” said Stephen Peck, president of the veterans support organization U.S. Vets.
San Francisco native and Army veteran Latoya White has struggled to stay housed in the dozen years since she left the service. She has found it difficult to afford rent even though she was able to keep decent jobs at a grocery store, the San Francisco airport, and now as a city bus driver.
She was unfamiliar with the resources the VA offered to veterans, like housing vouchers.
“I've always had benefits through my job. I don't think that then the VA had as many resources as they have now. I did go to the VA and they're so limited on what they could help me with. So, you know, I just went and got a job and I just was really self sufficient,” she said.
After sleeping in her car and couchsurfing for several years, White reached out for help from the advocacy group Swords to Plowshares. That led her to transitional housing, and then to an apartment in San Francisco this June through the HUD-VASH program.
“A lot of us didn’t even know anything about the HUD-VASH program,” said White, 34. “A lot of veterans don’t even know that there is assistance out there for them.”
What does Newsom want to do?
Putting the money into the mental health bond comes with a tradeoff.
In advancing Newsom’s mental health plan, lawmakers amended an early version of Assemblymemer Irwin’s veterans’ housing bill that would have issued more bonds for the existing veterans’ housing program. Without new funding, the program that supports construction of multi-unit veterans’ housing is expected to run out of money in 2024.
Still, representatives for Newsom’s ballot measure in a written statement said the bond would create more capacity to help former troops.
“Proposition 1 adds new money for California’s most vulnerable veterans without any redirection or reprioritization from the current program. Without Proposition 1, there would be zero funding for homeless veteran housing moving forward, which is why the measure is so critically needed,” the statement read.
All together, the ballot measure going to voters includes $6.4 billion to fund projects for behavioral health issues and those at the risk of homelessness. It also includes a proposal to adjust how the state spends money it collects for mental health services from a tax on personal income over $1 million, aiming to direct more of the money to housing.
The $1 billion for veterans housing will be distributed in the form of loans and grants by the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Representatives from veterans’ groups say the program’s success could hinge on getting the word out, and providing services that provide a path out of homelessness.
At U.S. Vets, Peck said the nonprofit strives to create a community where veterans help veterans.
“Building that community is really important,” he said. “A federal veteran who's been through the process already is probably more effective than we are as social workers.”
Gibson, who currently lives in transitional housing provided by Swords to Plowshares, has started to find that community through the nonprofit.
“I talked to them about how I'm struggling with some issues and they are pretty open and supportive about it,” she said.
Gibson hopes that federal and state services fund more community-oriented programs like hers, so more veterans are able to feel like they are home.
Supported by the California Health Care Foundation (CHCF), which works to ensure that people have access to the care they need, when they need it, at a price they can afford. Visit www.chcf.org to learn more.
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