As an Air Force veteran, Thomas Jones got used to rootlessness and difficult living conditions.
After Hurricane Andrew destroyed Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, where he was stationed in 1992, the military transferred him to Alaska, where he worked in an underground radar base.
But these experiences did not prepare him for his life after the military. After his discharge, Jones worked several desk jobs and bounced from California to Maryland to North Carolina. He delved into drugs. He spent more than nine months in prison after being convicted of writing bad checks. He had a stroke. His mother and father died.
Without “a penny in my pocket,” Jones said, he stayed at homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., and Raleigh, and was rejected for an apartment because of his criminal history.
“What I did in the past is affecting me now in 2015,” he said.
Jones, 53, is one of more than 160 veterans who entered emergency shelters or transitional housing from July 1, 2014-June 30, 2015, according to city figures. All of them needed permanent homes.
To meet the demand, the city’s Community Development Department, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Durham Housing Authority are continuing their push to find landlords who will rent to veterans holding HUD-VASH vouchers.
The VA issues the vouchers; the housing authority guarantees the landlord is paid every month. The veteran finds a permanent home.
But a shortage of landlords in the HUD-VASH (Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) program is now jeopardizing both the stability of veterans’ lives and Durham’s access to up to $2 million in federal funding for the program.
The city wants to find homes or apartments for at least 80 veterans by the end of the year. While several landlords have stepped up, “we need hundreds,” said Matthew Schnars, a project manager at the Community Development Department.
For example, about 60 homeless veterans recently had vouchers, but remained in transitional housing or emergency shelters because they couldn’t find a landlord to accept them, Schnars said.
Many veterans can’t secure an apartment without a voucher, which are similar to those used in Housing Choice or Section 8 programs. Some have poor or no credit, spotty employment because of service-connected disabilities, or like Jones, have a criminal conviction that prevents them from passing a background check for most apartments.
“People have in their mind the stigma of a Section 8 program and what it represents,” said Lindsey Jordan Arledge, grant and per diem liaison with the VA.
However, unlike Section 8 recipients, HUD-VASH voucher holders are paired with VA case managers to help them with life skills. Since the vouchers don’t expire, permanent housing provides the security the veterans need.
Joy Hager is the director of resident services at Volunteers of America, which runs Maple Court, a transitional housing development with 24 apartments. Funded by a VA grant, Maple Court offers stability while a veteran is waiting for a permanent home. With a few exceptions, the maximum stayis six months. For those with HUD-VASH vouchers, Maple Court is a bridge to permanent housing.
“People are ready to be housed, but the barrier is finding landlords,” Hager said.
Other hitches in the system can cause delays. Landlords who accept vouchers must have their properties inspected by the housing authority to meet federal housing standards. This includes having a working stove and refrigerator, utilities, handrails for steps and smoke alarms. Those inspections can take time.
Keishma James, office manager of DHA’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, said the agency has enough inspectors for the caseload. Yet the lack of affordable housing and willing landlords are a “major stumbling block, based on the stigmas associated with leasing to this population and the perceived burdensome government requirements,” she said.
It is also likely that the demand for housing could be even greater if more veterans knew about the HUD-VASH voucher program.“Not everybody knows the access points,” Schnars said. “We need to make it less confusing,”
Several months ago, Jones received a phone call from CAARE in Durham, notifying him that he qualified for the nonprofit’s veterans transitional housing program. And on Nov. 1, with a HUD-VASH voucher, Jones is scheduled to move into his new permanent home on Club Boulevard.
“I’m so thankful,” said Jones, whose buoyant personality is well-matched for his volunteer work at the CAARE front desk. “There’s a lot of bureaucracy. You have to keep pressing.”
How to help
Property managers and landlords who want to participate or who have questions about the HUD-VASH rental assistance voucher program can contact the Durham VA Medical Center Homeless Program at 919-286-0411, ext. 7065