Army veteran Sean Tait turned to veterans officials for help last year when he was evicted from a Sanger apartment.
He had injured his right knee while serving with the reserves in Afghanistan in 2009. The knee injury led to a bad back, and he needed an operation. He had worked on-and-off at jobs since returning home, but by December 2014 he couldn’t work, and he couldn’t pay $850 rent and utilities.
Ending veterans’ homelessness is a high priority at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has set a December 2016 deadline for getting veterans off streets and into housing. The Fresno VA had a place available for Tait.
However, the divorced father had a son and daughter who lived with him. He needed somewhere they all could stay together.
But there was nowhere for the family to go. Fresno does not have transitional or short-term housing for homeless male veterans to live with their children while permanent housing is found for them. Transitional housing is available for females with children, however.
I had to divide my kids up so I could be in the homeless program.
Former homeless veteran Sean Tait
For Tait, a 6-foot, 260-pound man who had been sleeping in his 2002 Chevrolet Suburban for a month, accepting a VA bed meant making a difficult decision: “I had to divide my kids up so I could be in the homeless program.”
During the six months he was in transitional housing, Tait said, his son, now 17, spent a couple of months in a sanctuary for homeless teens in Fresno and lived awhile with his mother. His 19-year-old daughter stayed with a friend.
The housing gap for homeless dads likely could become a greater problem for VA in coming years. More men are the custodians of children. According to a 2015 Veterans Affairs survey, child care was the second-highest unmet need named by both male and female homeless veterans.
Those who assist veterans in the central San Joaquin Valley say transitional housing is a must, and more beds are needed to keep families together. Staff at the Fresno VA say the need is great for single veterans as well as families.
The Fresno VA does the best it can to get homeless veterans into permanent housing, but veterans need somewhere to live while they wait to get into an apartment or home, said John “Top” Schuler, vice president of Central Valley Veterans, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans with housing, utility bills, car repairs and other needs.
“We still have families we put in hotels while they’re waiting for their housing,” Schuler said.
Housing vouchers help
Advocates say Veterans Affairs has made progress in ending homelessness, but many veterans continue to end up on the streets. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how many veterans are homeless – or how many are teetering on homelessness – but a one-day count in Fresno and Madera counties in January found 144 self-identified veterans were without shelter.
Getting veterans into permanent housing is the ultimate goal. And many have been helped. Low-income veterans can qualify for Veterans Affairs housing (VASH) vouchers, similar to what people in the community call Section 8 vouchers. The vouchers, funded through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, are issued by county housing authorities to eligible veterans.
144Self-identified veterans without shelter in Fresno on one-day count in January 2016
In Fresno, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties, 423 veterans are being housed with vouchers. An additional 27 were looking for a place to rent earlier this month, and 10 were waiting for documents to determine their eligibility.
The federal government has increased the number of vouchers over the past several years, and Valley counties are getting more this year. Veterans Affairs uses an algorithm to allot vouchers. Fresno is getting an additional 28, Merced is getting 11 and Tulare is getting six. Madera is not getting any new vouchers.
Currently, 94 percent of the VA vouchers are being used, but the greater need is for transitional housing, the Fresno VA staff said.
Kellie Ridenour, community planner at the Fresno VA, says transitional housing is needed so veterans can get services before moving into permanent housing. “Transitional housing would help with the population we’re dealing with now. They need a higher level of care.”
Veterans fall into homelessness for a number of reasons: Unemployment, divorce, poor money management, alcoholism, substance abuse, mental health conditions – and stresses unique to their time in military service, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Veterans Affairs in Fresno contracts with San Joaquin Valley Veterans – a project of WestCare California – for male and female transitional housing programs. There are 28 beds for men and 15 for women.
The programs are designed to give homeless veterans time to find employment, get finances in order and get treatment for medical and mental problems.
The VA assigns social workers to help veterans plot their path to a permanent home. Veterans can stay up to two years in transitional housing.
Female veteran grateful for housing help
The women’s transitional housing program, called HomeFront, was a godsend for Navy veteran Marda Fildes and her son and daughter four years ago.
“I didn’t know where we were going to go. We were homeless at the time,” Fildes said.
Fildes, 39, said she had been taking her children from place to place to live for short periods of time. She needed a place to get back on her feet. The family stayed in transitional housing for a year and eight months.
She had an opportunity to leave after a year for permanent housing, but she chose to stay when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. “I stayed at HomeFront so I would have people who could help me after my surgery.”
I am forever grateful to that program.
Former homeless veteran Marda Fildes
Fildes said she had time to find a job, and six months after her cancer diagnosis she had a VASH housing voucher. “I am forever grateful to that program.”
The Fresno VA has other short-stay beds for men who are not part of the San Joaquin Valley Veterans program, and Tait was sent to one of those. He was eager to get out and be reunited with his children. When he moved into the unit, he expected to be there three months. But it was six months before he got into an apartment.
Tait’s father, Dale Tait, said the homeless programs work for chronically homeless, single male veterans, not for those who find themselves homeless and with children. “They have it set up for people who are completely homeless, no jobs, on drugs. If you’re on drugs, alcohol, you have PTSD, you’re probably OK.”
Lynn Pimentel, deputy administrator for WestCare, said society is beginning to recognize the needs of veterans who are single fathers. In 2014, WestCare got Veteran Affairs funding for supportive services for veterans to help them out of homelessness and to not lose housing.
The program allows veterans – male and female – to live with their children, and spouses can live together.
Veterans in the program can get up to nine months of assistance to prevent homelessness, including deposits, rents and utilities, Pimentel said.
Tait could have used the help a year and a half ago. He had a $1,400 backlogged utility bill he couldn’t pay. He was told by San Joaquin Valley Veterans that he made too much money to be eligible for assistance.
Last week, Tait said he is trying to get back on his feet. He wants to train for a job that doesn’t require physical labor. In the past, he did construction work, among other jobs. After months of wrangling with Veterans Affairs to get his children included as dependents, he now gets a military pension of $1,200 a month. He still is fighting to be recognized for a service-connected disability.
A Veteran Affairs caseworker found the two-bedroom upstairs apartment in central Fresno for Tait last June. It’s in a multifamily development that accepts vouchers. The rent is $650 a month and Tait pays $270.
Tait said he is grateful for the apartment, but if his children had been with him in transitional housing, he would have taken time to find another place. With his weak back it’s been difficult living in an upstairs unit. He recently injured his left leg carrying laundry up the stairs. He also worries about the neighborhood.
Tait said he wanted help from the Fresno VA to get into an apartment in a better location for his children. “They don’t have a list of good places available.”
Fresno Veterans Affairs homeless housing programs
43 beds (28 male; 15 female, accepts children)
20 beds (14 male; six female)
Shelter Plus Care II Program
66 certificates (47 available to veterans)
Source: Veterans Affairs Central California Health Care System