County Helps Homeless Veterans Find Permanent Addresses

Gary Pagel survived lymphoma. He made it through two strokes and a divorce.

Then the Navy veteran found himself sleeping on the rocks at Oceanside Harbor. He had lost his car, job and home. Unsure of where to go for help, he was drawn to the rocky breakwater there because it reminded him of a place where he had spent a lot of time growing up. He would bathe in the ocean and sometimes not eat for days.

“I would play the radio so the rats wouldn’t come,” said Pagel. “It was better than going to jail.”

Four years later, Pagel has a permanent address, thanks to a veteran’s housing assistance program at the County’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

Pagel, 59, is one of a growing number of veterans enrolled in the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program, created by the federal government in 2008 as part of a larger goal of ending veteran homelessness by 2015. The County recently helped make a big dent in that goal. Over a 100 day period starting in May, agencies from 13 different regions nationwide got together to house as many homeless veterans as possible through VASH.

Turns out the San Diego team led the pack, reaching its goal of housing 75 homeless veterans before any other region just 75 days into the campaign. So they kept going. By the 100th day on Aug. 17, HCD and its partner agencies housed 103 veterans. Of those, the County provided VASH housing vouchers to 36 veterans and the San Diego Housing Commission provided vouchers to the rest.

The San Diego team also included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, United Way of San Diego County and the Regional Continuum of Care Council of San Diego, which oversees the San Diego region’s federal funding for homeless programs.

With many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans returning to civilian life and the economy recovering from a lengthy downturn, the need for programs like this is unmistakable, said Kelly Duffek, HCD’s Assistant Director.

While national homeless figures have been on the decline since 2010, San Diego’s homeless population is still increasing. Between 2009 and 2012, the region’s homeless population increased each year, with an overall jump of 24 percent, from 7,892 to 9,641, according to the Regional Task Force on the Homeless.

Not only is the number of homeless veterans also increasing in the region, but the demographics of homeless veterans aren’t what they used to be, Duffek said.

“The face of homelessness is changing,” Duffek said. “There are more women, families.”

Many veterans are returning with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other mental or physical illnesses, Duffek said. Many are struggling with the basics and having a hard time coping.

Under the program, case workers with the local VA’s office first make sure veterans receive services such as counseling and medical treatment. If a veteran is eligible for VASH, the case worker refers them to either the HCD or the SDHC, which both act as housing administrators. VASH participants must comply with certain requirements, including passing a background check (sex offenders are not allowed in the program) and meeting income requirements. If accepted, participants can receive a HUD-funded housing voucher typically covering 70 percent of their monthly rent. HCD staff gives participants a list of posted housing vacancies, though the unit doesn’t have to be on that list. Once the veteran finds a potential home, HCD staff inspects it to make sure it is safe, sanitary and that everything is working properly.

VASH participants are now living across the region, from the city of San Diego to areas under County HCD’s jurisdiction including Escondido, Chula Vista, El Cajon, Vista and San Marcos, said Nancy Varshay, an HCD housing specialist.

The program is a bit of a departure for housing authorities like HCD in that it uses the “housing first model,” meaning it makes housing a top priority.

It’s “hard to regain stability when you don’t have a roof over your head,” Duffek said.

Among the goals of the 100 day campaign was to find ways to speed up the housing process for veterans. The San Diego team met at the start of the campaign and talked though the process, looking for areas of improvement.

“Wherever we found a stumbling block, we tried to find a way that we could move that” out of the way, said Pat Leslie, facilitator for the Regional Continuum of Care Council, which helped set veterans up with temporary housing while they worked through the VASH requirements. The RCCC also coordinated donations of such basics as pots, pans and soap for the veterans’ new homes.

Among the biggest hurdles for veterans is a lack of an official government identification, which is required to secure an apartment. The team came up with a fix: partner with the United Way of San Diego County to provide assistance and pay for them.

Another area where homeless veterans struggle is coming up with money for a security deposit for a rental unit. The San Diego team recognized this and as of July, HCD began using HUD Emergency Shelter Grant funding to provide security deposits for those veterans who can’t afford them.

Like many veterans, Pagel said he was elated to learn that the VASH program could help him find a permanent home. He’s worked on a string of factory floors, but health issues stemming from cancer and his strokes have limited the types of work he can do. He scraped together money he had saved while living in a transitional homeless shelter from 2008 to 2010 to cover the security deposit on a one bedroom apartment in San Marcos. With the money he saved, he was able to buy a mattress, a desk and a reclining chair. A friend gave him a dresser and he bought dishes at the dollar store. He moved into the place in April 2010.

Pagel marvels at how far he has come. He excitedly describes his complex’s amenities: air conditioning, Internet access, a laundry room in the building, a view of the hills. Pagel is out of work again now and searching for a job. Having a home provides him with a base to run his search. He even has space now to store his surrealist oil paintings, something he started creating after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“This is much, much more than I ever expected,” Pagel said.

Michele Clock is a group communications officer with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact