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Task force looking for more landlords to house homeless veterans

By Mark Wineka
mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — For Waggoner Realty, it started with a couple of homeless veterans in 2009 and grew from there.

Today, the Salisbury firm receives federal housing vouchers to pay or help pay the rents of 21 veterans who otherwise would be living in shelters or on the streets.

“For us, it’s a good option for these vets to find a place to live,” Dan Waggoner says. “… They get themselves situated, stabilized and functioning (and become) participating members of society.

“The folks they have at the VA that work with these people are better than any other agency as far as monitoring and making sure things work well.”

This HUD-VASH voucher program — HUD refers to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and VASH stands for Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing — has several advantages for a landlord.

It provides guaranteed, dependable income on a monthly basis for apartments rented to veterans, and it also gives the landlord a VA case worker to communicate with if any problems or questions arise.

“The negatives are minute at best,” Waggoner says. “Some (veterans) require more attention, time and tolerance, but others are just no problems whatsoever.”

Julius Waggoner, Dan’s father, is a veteran himself, so as a landlord and property manager he also was willing to give a federal program that pays the rent of homeless vets a try.

“It’s a win-win for both the veteran and me as the property owner,” Julius Waggoner says.

To members of the newly formed Rowan County Homeless Veterans Task Force, whose focused mission is to eliminate homelessness among veterans, Waggoner Realty is a star amid a landscape where it’s often difficult to find landlords with one-bedroom apartments, not to mention those who will participate in a federal voucher program.

“A lot of our task force’s success so far is a result of Dan Waggoner’s willingness to work with us and accept HUD-VASH vouchers,” says Sam Foust, executive director of the Salisbury Housing Authority. “I love the VASH voucher program.’

Brian Dillmann, one of two caseworkers at the Hefner VA Medical Center, agrees: “Waggoner Realty has been a great partner with us.”

One of the biggest needs now, Foust says, is finding additional landlords “willing to take veterans and their rental vouchers.”

At its latest count, the task force has identified 71 homeless veterans in Rowan County, and since forming, it has been able to house 26.

The task force grew out of the First Annual N.C. Rapid Results Boot Camp in Raleigh. Ten people from various Rowan County agencies, including Faust and the housing authority, attended the two-day event in February aimed at creating awareness, cooperation and coordination among the organizations which provide support services and housing for homeless veterans.

“We 10 showed up not knowing each other,” Faust says, describing how that changed after two days and the many task force meetings since.

The boot camp issued a challenge to the new Rowan County task force. It set a goal of housing 30 homeless vets over 100 days. Those 100 days passed with 21, not 30, being placed in housing.

“I guess we made a difference for the 21,” Faust says, but he and the task force have kept working.

Again, one of the problems has been finding one-bedroom places and landlords willing to accept what the vouchers will pay them.

Even the Salisbury Housing Authority, which gives preference to homeless veterans, doesn’t have units available. In February to June of 2015, Faust says, 17 one-bedroom apartments came open. This year, there have only been two.

The housing authority has 75 one-bedroom apartments, but “we never know when someone will move out,” Faust says, adding “the waiting list is about a year long.”

Overall, the housing authority has placed about 35 veterans, but since the task force initiative started, it only has been able to place two because of the lack of availability.

“There’s a lot of money out there to help vets,” Faust says, and the task force has led to a more coordinated effort. Faust says he was personally surprised at how many homeless veterans there are in Rowan County.

They can be found in contract beds at the Rowan Helping Ministries shelter, but Faust says the task force also has identified them in “camps” off Jake Alexander Boulevard, sleeping in doorways in the downtown and in cardboard boxes behind shopping centers.

The national effort to address homeless veterans has made a dent.

The 2016 Point-In-Time estimate of homeless veterans showed North Carolina having 730 veterans in shelters and 158 “unsheltered,”  for a total of 888 homeless veterans.

That was an 18.7 percent decline from the 2015 Point-In-Time survey when there were 1,092 homeless veterans counted in North Carolina.

In the nation, the PIT estimates showed 47,725 homeless veterans in 2015, compared to 39,471 in 2016 — a drop of 17.3 percent.

Of the total homeless veterans in the 2016 PIT estimate, 13,067 were unsheltered.

Since 2010, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reports, homelessness among veterans has been reduced by 47 percent. “Opening Doors,” launched by the Obama administration six years ago, was the nation’s first strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness.

Foust says the HUD-VASH vouchers are “extremely helpful” to veterans because, in addition to paying their rent, they also are assigned a case manager.

“These case managers help guide the veterans to needed services, treatments, employment possibilities and social peers,” Foust says.

Dillmann is a licensed clinical and case manager for HUD-VASH vouchers. He has a 45-person caseload, as does the other case manager with him.

“We do the best within our capacity,” Dillmann says. “It’s a way to give back to the veterans and the community.”

It depends on the market area — HUD-VASH vouchers pay more in Charlotte, for example — but the vouchers here pay up to $495 a month for homeless veterans who rent a one-bedroom apartment. That would be someone with zero income.

The more money a homeless veterans makes the greater portion he would pay in rent.

Some veterans who first began receiving the HUD-VASH vouchers in 2008 are still using them, Dillmann says. Many others have used the vouchers as stepping stones toward becoming more independent.

“Some use them to get back on their feet,” Dillmann says. After that happens, they often move toward greater flexibility — maybe they’re able to buy a car and not have to depend on city buses any longer, for example.

Dillmann says the HUD-VASH vouchers are used more during downturns in the economy or full-blown recessions. In those times, landlords who are normally leery of using public housing money see the vouchers as income they wouldn’t be getting otherwise for their units.

But in good economic times, they can charge higher rents than the vouchers cover and “go where the money is,” Dillmann says.

Dan Waggoner acknowledges that his firm has to try to fit the veteran with an apartment that rents for about what the voucher will pay. But that hasn’t been a big issue, he adds.

He also confirms that veterans use the voucher program as a way toward becoming self-sufficient. Two of the first homeless veterans to whom Waggoner Realty rented in 2009 are still living in their same apartments, but they don’t rely on vouchers any longer, Waggoner says.

Dillmann confirms that many of his clients are self-sufficient, and he checks in with them about once a month. They generally have stable employment, and any medical issues or addictions are under control. They are doing better.

Others have more challenges.

“We will see them as often as we need to see them,” Dillmann says of those clients.

If a homeless veteran receiving HUD-VASH vouchers has minimal to zero income, HUD can pay for utilities, too.

Dillmann stresses that it’s not just case workers who have a stake in the veterans, but veteran support groups throughout the county. “It doesn’t just fall on one person,” he says.

Dillmann says the overall goal of the task force is good because of the community partners it brings together and the dialogue it creates. “It doesn’t change the actual circumstances, but maybe it does in how we look at a problem,” he says.

He stresses the veterans have to make the final decisions about their housing. “We can’t mandate where he lives,” Dillmann says. “Sometimes that’s a challenge as well.”

Literature for the HUD-VASH program says it targets the most vulnerable, needy and chronically homeless veterans — those who have not been able to achieve long-term housing and, as a result, can’t fully engage in treatment services.

To qualify in the HUD-VASH program, the veterans must have eligible discharge status, be eligible for VA medical services and be willing to meet regularly with a case manager.

Patricia Bryant, a housing specialist with Cardinal Innovations Healthcare and a member of the task force says she thinks the apartments — and landlords — are available for homeless veterans. The task force isn’t quite sure why more landlords won’t participate, especially with the HUD-VASH program available to them.

“We really would like to know why,” Bryant says. “The properties are definitely out there. I really don’t know why they are staying away from that.”

In May, the Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury held its third annual “Homeless Veteran Stand Down,” which set aside a day to register homeless veterans, give them care and information and put them in touch with 20 community agencies.

Day in and day out, the Hefner VA has a homeless veterans program in Building 11, and homeless veterans can be referred to the program whether they are receiving medical care or not.

Any veteran who is homeless or at risk of being homeless can call 877-424-3838, or 877-4AID-VET for assistance.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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