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San Francisco races to house homeless veterans in 100 days

Mariel Waloff

Finding an apartment in San Francisco these days is an uphill battle on any kind of budget. Craigslist ads and open houses can provoke hundreds of responses from people ready to compete for their share of the city’s scarce square footage, even at times willing to pay for months of rent in advance. For people without cash, things are a lot harder. Among those who find it most difficult are chronically homeless veterans.

In 2009, President Obama set a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Since then, there’s been a national push to improve existing programs, like one known as HUD-VASH. It’s a collaborative effort between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides vouchers to chronically homeless veterans so they can find housing on the open market. It also includes mandatory case management.

In May, several cities across the U.S. began a push to find housing for 50 veterans in 100 days. In June, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee hosted a press conference on the initiative. It was already 30 days in. So, with 70 days remaining, the city’s race began.

The maximum amount for a HUD-VASH voucher is $1,612 per month, but many veterans actually get a couple hundred dollars less than that. Finding a studio or one-bedroom apartment for $1400 is possible in San Francisco, but it rules out a lot of neighborhoods. One-bedroom apartments in Nob Hill and the Mission District can list for upwards of $2500 a month.

The most affordable neighborhood is the Tenderloin—and many homeless vets would rather not live there. That’s because lots of them have already spent weeks, months or even years living on the neighborhood’s streets.

Apartment-Hunting Comes with Unique Challenges

“My name is Nilo Arcia I'm living at Salvation Army Harbor Lights residential treatment program,” says Nilo Arcia, one of the voucher recipients. “I'm homeless. I got divorced in 2001, and I've been homeless ever since. Running the streets, in and out of jails, in and out of uh shelters.”

Arcia is 49 years old. He grew up in the city’s Bernal Heights neighborhood, and enlisted in the military as a teenager. Arcia was in the army for three years and never saw combat. But after he left the service, he started abusing drugs and alcohol. He spent much of the past decade on the streets the Tenderloin, using and selling drugs. But he’s sober now, and he doesn’t want to stay there.

“If I had no other choice but the Tenderloin it would be very hard,” he says. “There's too many drugs, too many violence, too many people that I know and a lot of people knows me, and I don't—I have strong, strong foundation as far as my program is concerned but I might just decide to go out there and, you know, step out of my apartment and whatever the case may be and I'll start drinking. I don't want that. I wanna stay clean and sober and a productive life.”

When I first meet Arcia, in late June, he’s been living at the drug treatment program for a year. He doesn’t have his housing voucher yet, but he’s already looking at apartments on Craigslist. “What I look for is the prices that they have,” he says, “and it's like some of them are just out of town.”

Clicking through ads, Arcia finds a broad range in prices—but they’re all high. A Mission District studio asks for $1,975. A 500-square-foot apartment in Nob Hill lists for $2,605. I ask him if he even bothers looking at listings from the neighborhood he’s trying to avoid.

“Oh I bother,” he says. “I mean, maybe I'm wrong, and maybe for example—oooh, where's this at? That's pretty good. Eddy. Oh, that's exactly where I used to do my addiction, right in front of this apartment. And it's and I guess it's a nice apartment, but the neighborhood itself is not for me.”

The Big Picture

Leon Winston is the chief operating officer of Swords to Plowshares, a veterans organization partnering with the city in the 100 days initiative. He’s a veteran and was once homeless himself. He says limited opportunities can drive people into the service, and their military time might not help them find jobs once they’re out.

There are about 170,000 homeless veterans in the U.S., close to a third of whom are chronically homeless. Winston says that over the past 30 years homelessness has become a greater problem for the country in general, and there has never been a strong community-based care system for veterans. Many of these men have been poor for a long time. That’s why Winston is concerned about them competing for apartments on the open market.  

“These are chronically homeless veterans,” he says. “When you first start talking about this program, you were thinking bright shiny new veterans just coming home from Afghanistan or Iraq a year or so ago. And that's not who they are. These are veterans who've been homeless a long time. They're typically in their forties to fifties and are unemployed, or if they are employed it's part-time. They’re disabled and they're competing walking up to an open house with people driving up in BMWs for the same apartment.”

Competing at an Open House 

After several weeks of looking on Craigslist, Nilo Arcia finds a few studios and one-bedrooms in the Sunset and Outer Richmond neighborhoods, close to his job at the VA Medical Center. I meet up with him on a Saturday in early July to visit an open house.

Arcia is wearing jeans and a baggy long-sleeved shirt, and carries a backpack full of forms. The first apartment we visit is on a quiet street near Lincoln Park. He’s excited, and a little nervous. He smokes a few cigarettes. This is the first apartment he’s gone to see in at least ten years.  

“Crossing my fingers,” he says. "Hopefully I've got a good chance of getting the apartment. This is the right neighborhood."

We reach the building and walk upstairs to a big, sunny studio apartment. It’s listed at $1295—a good deal. One other man is filling out an application. Arcia introduces himself to the guy showing the apartment and explains that he is a veteran. The man says he is too.

“I’m very interested in this one because it’s only five, ten minutes from where I work at,” Nilo tells him.

“Great. Well you're very welcome to apply for this one if you wish,” the man tells Arcia. “We're going to be deciding on Monday, who gets the unit, and I had quite a crowd here today too, I think I got six applications but I'll take yours if you want.”

Then Arcia begins explaining about his voucher, and things get complicated. The man has never heard of the program, and as it turns out, he isn’t actually the landlord. Arcia shows him the paperwork—

“I don't know if I'm authorized to fill this out,” he says.

Arcia also explains that the apartment would need to be inspected by someone from the Department of Housing. This is one of the HUD-VASH requirements.  

The man showing the apartment looks at the form. “Date available for inspection for your guys to come and see it,” he reads, “that's a lot of work, I don't know if the landlord's gonna wanna wait. See cause I've got six applications right now of people that want a 'yes' call from me on Monday. I don’t think the owner will wait.”  

In San Francisco, these housing inspections used to take weeks to complete. The 100 Days program has shorted the process to just 48 hours. But for Arcia, it’s still too long. So we check out the bathroom, look at the shiny wood floors, and leave.

Afterwards I ask Arcia how he feels. 

“Well, discouraged but it's not gonna stop me,” he says. “I'm gonna keep looking until I find my own place, that fits my lifestyle, close to work, and be a good to society.”

How the City Can Help

Part of Arcia’s problem is that landlords don’t have any legal obligation to rent to veterans—the city can encourage them, but that’s about it. That’s part of what Bevan Dufty, the director of the mayor’s office of HOPE—Housing, Opportunity, Partnerships and Enagement—is trying to change.  

“One of the things that was a wake up call for me was Mayor Lee had a press conference, it was very well attended. It was on all the television news stations. It was in the front page of the San Francisco chronicle,” he says.“And after all of that media, only six landlords had come forward and said that they were interested in having units inspected, and that was a bit troubling.”

One idea Dufty has is to change policy and allow voucher recipients to share an apartment or rent an SRO, which voucher rules currently don’t allow. Another is to give veterans the option of leaving San Francisco altogether. That’s ultimately what happened to Stephen Hancock, a 65 year-old combat veteran and San Diego native.

“I must've looked at two or three hundred places,” Hancock says. “All up by the VA, all in the avenues, south San Francisco, downtown San Francisco. You couldn't stay in a place near downtown San Francisco cause the vouchers wasn’t enough for you to even look at a place.”

Hancock abandoned the listings and began driving around in his truck, looking for places to live. Eventually, he stumbled upon an apartment building for seniors in San Bruno. The management there told him they’d love to have him and other veterans. But when he told his counselor what he’d found, he learned that his voucher was only good within San Francisco city limits. Hancock stood his ground.

“I just wanna be free,” he says. “I don't want too much, but I want something. I think I've earned that.”

He was determined to live in a more peaceful environment than what he’d find in the Tenderloin.

“I gave Uncle Sam a blank check up to any amount of money, up to my life,” Hancock says. “I've seen a lot of my brothers, give their life. You know what I'm saying? And then come back here, and have to live like that?”

Finding a Place to Call Home Beyond the City Limits

Eventually, Hancock was able to exchange his San Francisco voucher for one in San Mateo County. He moved into the San Bruno building in March. Hancock keeps his new home spotless. There are vacuum marks on the clean, beige carpets. His bed is made and the sink is empty of dishes.

“I just wanted a place that I could call my own,” says Hancock. “A place where I could go and lay down, where I could take a shower if I want to. I could go and get some cold water out of my refrigerator, and that was just a dream. Twenty-three years, and I really never thought that I’d attain it.”

Hancock’s situation has caused a bit of a stir in the HUD-VASH program, and for the city’s 100 days initiative. There are different views on whether veterans should be allowed or encouraged to look for affordable housing outside of San Francisco where it’s often easier to find.

Leon Winston says he can understand both sides. “We want veterans to have choice,” he says. “That's been one of the arguments. Well, we want that too, but I think it’s—to a certain extent—a romantic notion, and the realities are that they don't have choice, that people aren't renting to them, that they can't afford the rents, that they're impoverished. So what are their choices? They're very limited.”

Winston wants to offer veterans more communal residential options, but he can’t do that under the current HUD-VASH program. He says that as the program continues, he’d like to see more communication between local and federal entities so that San Francisco’s unique challenges can be addressed.

One project that Winston is optimistic about is a 76-studio apartment building called Veterans Commons set to open this fall at 150 Otis Street in San Francisco. It is just the kind of communal solution he thinks the city needs, but says it’s not enough because the turnover rate in these programs is usually very low.

“When these vets get residential stability they guard it very jealously,” he says.

Bevan Dufty would also like to keep veterans in San Francisco, if it’s possible. “I think our city’s values are that we're a city that that has definitely been in the forefront of opposing many wars,” he says. “But [we’re] also a city that really cares a lot about its veterans. So I do feel a sense of patriotism, that I want our city to make every effort to allow our veterans to to live in San Francisco. If that's what they want.”

Even though Hancock had to leave San Francisco to find what he was looking for, he’s ended his 23-year bout of homelessness. There’s one less veteran living on the streets now. But many more are still homeless or in limbo.

As of early August, Nilo Arcia said he’d been turned down for five more apartments, because the landlords didn’t want to accept his voucher. But he does think he’s found a place to live—a studio apartment in the Tenderloin.

You can find more information about HUD-VASH at HUD's website.