“Did you serve?”
On the streets of Renton, in soup kitchens, in tent cities, this is the question members of the Veterans Affairs Community Housing and Outreach Services are asking.
The center at 419 S. Second St. in downtown Renton offers a full array of services for homeless veterans.
“Our program gets larger every year,” said housing director Katherine Gerard. “But in a nutshell, we provide outreach to veterans who aren’t engaged in VA services, who are going to shelters and soup kitchens, and so forth. We find homeless veterans and connect them to services at the VA.”
Once they identify the needy veterans, the center’s employees perform an assessment and see what the next step should be.
Paul Mocha, liaison for the VA Grant and Per Diem Program, said the VA offers a continuum of housing programs, ranging from emergency to permanent residences.
The emergency housing is accomplished through partnerships with local agencies. Gerard said they have 22 emergency beds available, but they would like to have more.
“That’s our gap,” she said. “But typically we can find somewhere for the veteran to go that day.”
The Renton office also works through various partners in the community to provide transitional housing. The partners receive funding from the VA to house veterans for up to two years. The center has 274 transitional housing units available.
It has nearly 1,100 HUD-VASH apartments for permanent housing. HUD-VASH is a partnership between Housing Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing. HUD provides Section 8 funding for the veterans, while VASH provides case managers.
Mocha said HUD-VASH is a fast-track program. With the veterans entering the system as priorities, they avoid the lottery usually used to select members of the general population.
Gerard said getting Section 8 funding can take three to five years for non-veterans. With HUD-VASH that approval can happen in a matter of months, depending on the seriousness of the situation.
“What we’re looking for are the veterans who actually need the intensive case management services too,” Gerard said. “So the individuals you see out on the corners who look disheveled and actually are homeless, those are good HUD-VASH candidates. People who just need cheaper housing aren’t good candidates.”
The VA does have a Homeless Prevention Program for veterans. It can help veterans who are recently homeless or provide funding for eviction prevention.
The VA also offers a mental health rehabilitation and treatment program at the American Lake office. Veterans can go live there for up to six weeks to stabilize, then move into housing.
Finally finding a home
One veteran who was willing to speak with the Renton Reporter about his experience with the VA has gone through the full continuum of housing options, finally finding a permanent home at the Compass Center. For privacy reasons, his real name is omitted and he is referred to as John.
John always wanted to go to Alaska. After an honorable discharge from the army and while working on his horticulture degree, he decided he would take the trip.
He bought a plane ticket from Seattle to Alaska and made his way to Seattle early, leaving himself a couple of days to do the tourist thing.
The Emerald City ensnared him. The economy was booming, he found a job in his short stop in Seattle, and didn’t leave. Things were good. But that wouldn’t last.
“I did well for a while, but you know how that goes,” he said. “I was up and down.”
John’s anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, exacerbated by a decades-long battle with alcoholism, eventually left him nearly hopeless.
Then John said he “accidentally” found out about what benefits the VA had to offer, when he was going through some especially tough times and an acquaintance told him he should go to the VA. He put off the visit for a while, thinking the acquaintance couldn’t possibly be right. Finally, after things got tougher he went in.
“For all the dumb things I’ve done in my life, that was one of the smart ones,” he said. “Any veterans who are out there struggling, I would definitely recommend the VA.”
Now he lives in one of the permanent residences at the Compass Center. After the “10-cent tour” of the center, he eases back into an arm chair in his apartment, coffee in hand. His love of horticulture is easy to see with the multitude of plants saturating his rooms. This is a man at peace with his surroundings.
Searching for a job
He’s a year sober and he’s working with Social Security to get a job without losing his benefits. He doesn’t want anything fancy, a nighttime janitorial position would be just fine for him.
“I don’t do well in social situations, so something where I could put my headphones on and just do my job would be great,” he said.
All of this progress may have been possible without the VA’s help, but it certainly would have been a massive long shot.
“You see those panhandlers out in downtown Seattle,” John said while holding up his fingers with the slightest gap in between. “This is how close I was to being out with them. If it wasn’t for the VA, anything is possible in this world, but I’m pretty sure that would be me.”
How to find help
The Renton office can’t currently handle walk-ins, but housing director Katherine Gerard said she hopes it will have open-door hours by early next year. They are just waiting for a few more building updates. Walk-ins can be handled at the Seattle office.
Veterans can schedule a screening at the Renton center by calling.
“If they can’t get here, we go to where they are,” Gerard said. “There’s so much need, especially in this area. When we do open the doors, I think we’re going to be busy.”
Veterans looking for help should call 1-877-424-3838. That number can route them to any service at any location they need.
VA employees are constantly going out into the community to find veterans who need help. You can let them know if you see a homeless veteran who needs help.
The Renton center services mostly South King County, but veterans from anywhere can go to any VA facility to receive help.