With a third of homeless veterans living in California, Newsom backs new housing strategy
by Shreya Agrawal • CalMatters
California has poured billions of dollars into finding homes for unhoused veterans, but the number of former military service members living on the street has held steady for almost a decade. Today, a third of the nation’s unhoused veterans are in California.
Tori Gibson of San Francisco is one of them. She’s been looking for a stable place to live since she left the Navy seven years ago, and it hasn’t been easy for her. She left the service in part because of health issues that continue to debilitate her.
Now 32 and undergoing a gender transition, she’s struggling to make ends meet.
“It was just a really bad spiral of just more disability and then less money and no support,” she said.
She’s searching for a new start as Gov. Gavin Newsom proposes a significant change in the state’s strategy for ending veteran homelessness. His plan, included in a $6.4 billion mental health bond he’s sending to voters in the March primary election, would set aside funding specifically for veterans with serious behavioral health conditions.
That’s a shift from California’s last two major efforts to fund housing for veterans, both of which created units for a general population of former military service members.
The first effort began in the late 1990s, when the state built seven new veterans’ homes over a period of 17 years. Today those veterans homes are underused. They were built to house about 2,400 people, but only 1,575 veterans live in them. The 300-unit veterans home in Barstow was so underutilized in 2020 that Newsom moved to close it as he braced for a pandemic recession, although lawmakers blocked him from shutting the site.
The second push centered on a pair of ballot measures voters approved in 2014 and in 2018 that allocated $4.6 billion to build housing specifically for former military service members. The money created the Veterans Housing and Homelessness Prevention Program, which has supported the construction of about 3,250 housing units for veterans to date.
Veterans advocates and state officials view the programs — along with federal efforts led by the Department of Veterans Affairs — as successful in reducing homelessness among former military service members. In the last 12 years, veteran homelessness in California has decreased by more than 30%.
But the trend in California mostly accounts for gains made during the Obama administration, when veteran homelessness peaked nationwide and the Department of Veterans Affairs moved aggressively to place former troops in housing. Since 2014, the number of homeless veterans in California has mostly plateaued around 10,000 to 12,000 people, according to annual counts released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Z2Fqo/1/
Alex Visotzky, senior California policy fellow at the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said the high numbers of veteran homelessness result from the challenges veterans face on returning home in California’s competitive housing market.
“When housing markets are unaffordable and incredibly competitive, those with the greatest needs are going to be more likely to fall out,” he said.
Newsom’s new strategy in the mental health bond, advocates say, should help those most in need. The California Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that half of the state’s unhoused veterans suffer from some kind of behavioral health issue.
The money in the bond would go to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which would work with CalVet “to focus specifically on housing veterans experiencing behavioral health challenges,” said Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, the Thousand Oaks Democrat who wrote the bill that ultimately put the bond on the ballot.
Studies have shown veterans are overrepresented in the nation’s homeless population. They may experience personal challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorders or other mental health issues as well as disabilities related to their military service.
“Transitioning from that very specific culture and society to civilian life is a lifelong process,” said Amy Fairweather, director of policy at the veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares. “If you do have any physical or mental disabilities, dealing with those and trying to re-enter civilian life can be very difficult.”
California’s Veterans Homes
California’s long history of providing housing to former military service members dates to 1884, when it opened an estate in Napa County as the state’s first veterans home. That site is still in operation, housing around 600 veterans on a picturesque property in wine country.
Altogether, the state now has eight veterans homes. The two largest homes are in fairly remote communities — one is in Napa County’s Yountville and the second is in Barstow in the Mojave Deserts. Moving to them can mean living at a long distance from a veteran’s family. That geography somewhat limits interest in the homes.
The homes account for the lion’s share of CalVet’s $650 million annual budget. Some advocates have called on the state to put money into programs that would benefit people who don’t necessarily want to live in a veterans home.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/wYJ4R/1/
“The state should keep its promises to the current home residents, but as things change, the program needs to be less structured on just providing room and board for a very limited number of people and more structured on providing skilled nursing facility care for those who need it,” said Ethan Rarick, executive director at Little Hoover Commission, which published a report on the veterans homes in 2017.
Military News | Navy News | DoD conditions-based reopenings