Been Down So Long
Chapter One - Page 1
Sonoma County Veterans Struggle To Find Housing - Guy Kovner/Press Democrat
Charlie Wall, a military veteran who knows the loneliness and privation of homelessness, has a ticket to a better life. Wall, 57, a recovering alcoholic who takes medication to ward off anxiety and mood swings, has completed a six-month program at a Santa Rosa veterans facility and is hunting for an apartment.
There lies the rub. The apartment vacancy rate in Sonoma County is minuscule, rents are among the highest in the state and most landlords won't rent to down-and-out vets. Wall is one of 17 Sonoma County veterans who hold a government rent voucher and are looking for landlords willing to accept them as tenants. About 40 applications and a few interviews have gotten Wall nowhere.
Sonoma County and the federal government have set goals for eliminating homelessness among veterans by 2015, with a federal report calling it "a national priority." But both efforts are likely to fall short, despite an 18 percent decline in the number of homeless vets from 76,329 in 2010 to 62,619 last year.
Without changes, including greater federal spending on the voucher program, the national goal won't be met, according to a February report by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. In Sonoma County, a snapshot survey in January found 400 homeless veterans, and 402were counted in the previous survey in 2011. Veterans advocates believe the number is much higher.
The stigma of being low-income and relying on government housing vouchers can be tough to overcome. "I'm a wonderful risk," insisted Wall, who has long hair, a beard and wears aviator-style glasses. "I've sowed my oats; I've had my time."
All he wants now is to "settle down and get to know some people," said Wall, who served for 10 years in the Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam War era, leaving the service as a staff sergeant. He'll go to AA meetings and perhaps join a Catholic church congregation, returning to the faith of his youth.
"Sounds corny, but it really is me," Walls said in an interview at Hearn House, a veterans transitional housing facility that opened in February on West Hearn Avenue in Santa Rosa. "I am so resigned to taking it easy." Many people are watching and rooting for Wall and his cohorts, the focus of a program that kicks off Monday with a meeting at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.
Ending veteran homelessness in Sonoma County by the end of 2015 would require placing about 1,300 veterans in permanent housing over that time, advocates calculated. A more reasonable goal, they decided, would be to find stable housing for 30 vets a month, tripling the current placement rate.