OCEANSIDE — Federal lawmakers brought Congress to town on Aug. 22 to hear what factors are contributing to homelessness among veterans and what leaders are doing to get vets off the streets.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano), who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, led the bipartisan congressional field hearing at the North County Coastal Military & Veterans Affairs Resource Center in Oceanside.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) also participated in the hearing along with Florida’s Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Palm Harbor), who is a ranking member of the subcommittee that Levin chairs.
The intention for the hearing was to look at what federal, state, local and non-governmental resources are doing to reduce veteran homelessness, and how Congress can better support the work already being done on the front lines.
According to this year’s San Diego Point-in-Time Count, there are 8,102 homeless people in San Diego County. Approximately 1,068 — 13% — of those people are veterans.
Levin told two panels of local government and non-government leaders who are either heavily involved in or frequently deal with matters relating to veteran homelessness that Washington wants to send more resources to Southern California to help.
California alone accounts for nearly 29% of the nation’s homeless veteran population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2018 Point-in-Time Count.
Levin noted California has a number of “unique” factors that contribute to its homeless veteran population: its high cost of living, its several military bases close to urban centers and a climate that makes it easier to be outdoors.
“But while these factors contribute to homelessness, we also are a state and nation with many resources,” Levin said. “That means we have no excuse to fail those who proudly serve in uniform.”
So far, Levin has introduced and passed through the House six bipartisan veterans bills, two of which President Donald Trump has signed into law: an expansion of veterans’ access to STEM scholarship programs and the Protecting Affordable Mortgages for Veterans Act, which provides a “technical fix” that maintains liquidity in the veteran home loan market and continued access to affordable VA mortgages.
Levin has also introduced the Housing for Women Veterans Act, one of several bills addressing veteran homelessness that the Veterans’ Affairs committee is currently reviewing.
According to Levin, the bill would ensure some Supportive Services for Veteran Families grants go to organizations that focus on women veterans and their families.
The congress members heard from two sets of panelists, the first of which included District 4 County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher.
In addition to his county supervisor role, Fletcher serves as a board member on the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless and was recently asked by Gov. Gavin Newsom to sit on the statewide Homeless and Supportive Housing Advisory Task Force.
“If we have the moral authority to send young men and women to war, then we have the moral obligation to care for them when they come back,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher is a Marine Corps combat veteran who served for 10 years.
“Given there’s always the funding available to fund the making of them, I appreciate the commitment to find the funding to make sure we take care of them on the backend,” he said.
Fletcher attributed the county’s high cost of living and the general stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as two leading factors of veteran homelessness in the county.
“The VA provides incredible care,” Fletcher continued, noting that’s where he goes for medical treatment. “The problem is getting veterans to go to the VA and ask for care that they don’t want anyone to know they have.”
If the stigma surrounding PTSD persists then veterans will continue to not seek treatment, Fletcher said, leading to substance abuse and eventually a “downward spiral” into homelessness.
Fletcher also said efforts to counter attempts to privatize or outsource the VA are “critical.”
“That is a safe place for us to go,” he said about the VA. “We get culturally competent care from people who care about us and understand us.”
Greg Anglea, chief executive officer of Interfaith Community Services, was among the second set of panelists. Interfaith is the largest provider of housing and social services for homeless people in North County.
According to Anglea, homelessness among veterans has decreased nearly 50% in less than a decade due to a “significant scaling” or increase in federally funded services addressing homelessness.
“If we choose to not continue to scale, we choose to not continue to reduce the number of veterans experiencing homelessness,” Anglea said.
Anglea said it costs Interfaith about $1,000 per household to prevent homelessness, and last year his organization prevented 450 people — about 130 households — from being homeless.
Tamera Kohler, CEO of the San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless and one of the panelists, said the cost to re-house someone is almost $10,000 in a high-rent area like San Diego County.
“When we have such a tight market and it’s so expensive, it’s even more important that we focus on the prevention,” Kohler said. “It’s money well saved and money well spent.”
Photo Caption: A homeless man pulls a cart of belongings along Oceanside Boulevard in 2018. The city’s Housing Commission is attempting to address myriad factors that have contributed to a growing homeless population in the last several years. Photo via Facebook
Samantha Nelson covers Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and the decommissioning San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. She earned her journalism degree from the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and has previously reported for The Athens Messenger in Athens, Ohio, and USA Today in McLean, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter: @samm1son