Success, challenges mix for housing program

A program that helps homeless veterans get off the street has success stories, but also its share of frustrations.

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During a visit Wednesday to the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., listens as Gary Brown talks about efforts homeless veterans. Brown is case manager for Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program. (Aug. 25, 2010)

WALLA WALLA -- In a round-table panel discussion of how federal dollars are helping homeless veterans get into housing, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray was presented with glowing success stories on Wednesday.

She also heard about frustrations and barriers to accessing that money, leaving some homeless veterans still on the street.

In the theater at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Murray, D-Wash., heard from people like Lauren Awbry and Terry Donscheski, veterans who have reclaimed their lives through programs such as CORD -- Corps of Recovery Discovery -- and the HUD-VASH housing program, a partnership between the VA and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Awbry, composed and serene, detailed a former life that went from serving in the Air Force in Saudi Arabia, to coming home and trying to get into college through the G.I. Bill.

Glitches, however, closed that door and sent her into bartending, where she birthed a "really bad" drinking problem, the young woman told Murray.

Two of "the most fabulous years of my life" in the CORD program turned things back around -- Awbry has almost completed an associate of arts degree and will soon be ready to enter a nursing program, she said.

Donscheski became homeless in Yakima in 2005, he said. From 1979 to 1983, he was a proud member of the Navy. After his discharge, however, drug and alcohol dependency eventually erased any pride in himself.

If Donscheski really wanted help, a friend told him, the VA in Walla Walla had the answer.

It did, and now the veteran works as a case manager for CORD, steering his peers into homes, services, school and work. Getting into his own housing through the HUD-VASH voucher system was seamless for him, Donscheski said. "It really, really helped me."

The program is doing what it was designed to do, noted Gary Brown, who manages the HUD-VASH at the Walla Walla VA. His office also does outreach for the program in places like Tri-Cities and Yakima.

"We draw from a huge geographic area. Many places don't have a shelter, a Christian Aid Center, like we do. So veterans are truly homeless."

Getting those folks into housing allows Brown and his staff to build relationships and get clients engaged in social services, furthering their recovery, he pointed out.

Missing from the successful equation is dedicated housing for women veterans said Nancy Riggle, executive director of Valley Residential Services, the umbrella program over CORD. "Women are not always comfortable sharing housing with men."

The barrier in obtaining women-only housing is the "exorbitant housing prices" here, Riggle told Murray. "And transportation is a huge issue in Walla Walla. And access to medical care in rural areas."

The Walla Walla Housing Authority partners with the VA for the 120 vouchers used here, said Executive Director Renee Rooker. Yet she longs for a way to cut through some red tape, she explained to Murray. "I'm on the phone with HUD at least quarterly because the problem is not in a box. The VA and (WWHA) have two different languages and different versions of success."

Housing in Walla Walla is scarce, the vouchers can't cross state lines and there's nothing in place for women veterans who have children are among the problems Rooker and her staff face, in addition to not having enough housing vouchers, she said.

Mike Brown, a case manager for CORD, seconded those frustrations. "Vets flock here for help and they want to stay here." Many of those men and women come out of the two-year CORD program with no job and little or no income. Not being able to move forward sets them up for failure, he said.

"This population falls through the cracks," Rooker added.

What looks good on paper and works for some doesn't work for everyone, said Buddy Georgia from the audience. He and others were at the meeting to represent Veterans' Relief Fund, established a few years ago when a veteran in need was denied housing.

The fund is a resource for indigent veterans and their families who are experiencing financial hardship and need money for food, lodging, transportation and some medical expenses.

While the HUD-VASH voucher program is a good answer, it's not a complete one for many veterans, Georgia said. "Veterans don't have money for background checks, the deposit, the application fee, any post-due utility bills."

Others at the table agreed with his assessment of the problem. "The money needs to go directly into the vets' hands to pay those fees," Gary Brown said.

The problem stems from the 1952 version of the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act, Don Schack explained to the room.

The bill was passed granting preference benefits to those honorably separated veterans who served on active duty in any branch of the armed forces of the United States from April 28, 1952 to July 1, 1955.

Schack, board chairman of the Veterans' Relief advisory committee, said the act failed to build in reciprocity, allowing a veteran to use the funds from county to county, in order to seek the best -- or only -- available help.

"Federal law says 'Here is what we want each state and county to do,' but it did not give them any choice if, say, the fellow lives in Grant County but had to go to Walla Walla County for help. It left them no choice but to exclude nonresidents," he said.

"It's a simple thing to amend, we can take that problem away. We haven't changed any money anywhere. Counties could trade vouchers and get reimbursed. And guess what? So many people would be helped."

The relief fund is administered by Walla Walla County's Department of Human Services and the money is generated though property tax levies, donations and fundraising. "It's all people's tax dollars regardless of what we do ... Let's use it wisely."

While Walla Walla VA officials have found some ways to work around legal constraints, they remain a barrier to getting veterans into homes, Gary Brown told Murray.

"Coming home and separating from the service is not a piece of cake," Murray told listeners. "What you're doing here I want to see replicated everywhere."

What she was told here matched up with what she and other lawmakers are seeing -- HUD-VASH voucher use has been slower than anticipated.

"You just assume the vouchers are there and people have what they need. I had to come and listen to find out what the problems are," the senator said.

"We're hearing around the nation the vouchers are not working like we thought. People in other communities haven't found a way around the barriers. I will go back to work with the VA to fix this.

"Absolutely," it's fixable, Murray said,

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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