A federal program credited with decreasing Oklahoma City's population of homeless veterans stands to grow.
Forty homeless Oklahoma City veterans will be eligible for housing vouchers after an injection of cash from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city's Housing Authority will receive $142,857 for the vouchers for a 4-year-old federal program aimed at permanently housing homeless veterans, an authority official said Wednesday.
Richard Marshall, director of leased housing, said it will be the fifth time since 2008 the program has received federal funding for Oklahoma City's homeless veterans.
The housing assistance is provided through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program, which is administered by HUD, the VA and local public housing agencies across the country.
Dan Straughan, executive director of The Homeless Alliance, said numbers from the city's annual point-in-time count of the homeless suggest the program is behind a significant drop in the population of local homeless veterans.
Pam Stark, one of five supportive housing program case managers working at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, said 130 Oklahoma City homeless veterans received vouchers since 2008 and 100 of those are now leasing a residence. The latest funding could bring the number of homeless veterans with vouchers to 185.
Straughan said the program has had noticeable impact in Oklahoma City. The number of homeless veterans counted in the city limit has dropped from 228 individuals in 2009 to 110 in 2012, a drop of about 52 percent.
It's easier to house veterans since the supportive housing program was instituted, Marshall said.
The waiting list for the federal government's Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program has been closed in Oklahoma City since December 2010, Marshall said. Under Section 8, the disabled, low-income families or the elderly who meet certain criteria can use vouchers from local housing authorities to rent dwellings like homes, duplexes, mobile homes or apartments from willing landlords whose properties meet certain health and safety requirements. Recipients of the vouchers have to contribute a portion of their income.
Section 8 housing remains open to homeless veterans under the supportive housing program, and the qualifications are less stringent, Marshall said. Veterans with criminal histories — except sex offenders who must register for life — are not denied the vouchers, for example.
“It's grown our capability to be able to house homeless veterans more quickly,” Marshall said.
Getting homeless veterans off the streets is not without significant challenges.
To use the housing voucher program at the VA, veterans have to be willing to accept case management and rules set by the government, like home visits with a social worker and drug screenings.
“Some people just don't want to do that,” said Linda Carpenter-Rhodes, a case manager with the supportive housing program
Another challenge has been finding landlords willing to accept the homeless veterans.
Criminal records, mental illness and substance abuse are common issues among homeless veterans, Straughan said. They are also reasons why landlords are hesitant to accept them as tenants.
To address that issue, the supportive housing program hosted a landlord fair at the WestTown Resource Center and Day Shelter at NW 3 and Virginia in November, drawing more than 30 landlords to hear about the program. It plans to host another fair later this month.
“We tried to explain even though you may be getting a person with felony background you get us, someone to help you when problems arise,” Stark said. “A lot of people want to help vets anyway, they just didn't know how to do it.”
“We've probably brought on somewhere between 15 and 20 new landlords that call us,” Stark said.
Vietnam-era veteran Stephen Armstrong, 57, is one of the program's success stories. After spending two years using the vouchers to rent a home on the southeast side, he purchased a home in northwest Oklahoma and moved in March. He no longer needs the vouchers.
His eyes fill with tears when he remembers the weeks he spent homeless in 2010, when he slept “wherever I could.”
“Once you're faced with living on the streets, you either go under a bridge or you ask for help,” he said.
He found the supportive housing program at the VA, which provided him with case management services along with the vouchers, about $600 a month for rent and utilities.
“I finally felt like maybe I had a chance to live on my own again,” he said.
Armstrong said severe injuries he received while working in the Navy with a training squadron during the Vietnam War eventually left him unable to work. He worked for more than 20 years with a painful back injury, he said, driving a truck, building homes and buying and selling properties. He stopped working in 1999, depleting his savings before turning to family and friends for help.
Getting sober has played a role in his success; he said he hasn't taken a drink in a year, and has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the last three.
Cases like Armstrong's, with the transition to homeowner, have been rare; only two individuals have made it that far in four years, supportive housing program case managers said.
Straughan considers homeless veterans among the hardest to house among all homeless.
“There's a hard core group of the homeless veteran population that we presume are really never going to be able to stand completely on their own two feet,” he said. “That's why we have permanent supportive housing programs that charge some percentage of their income for rent, but are providing services in the housing that enable them to sustain them, substance abuse treatment, case manager.”
Now that he's on his feet, Armstrong said the VA asked him to talk to inspire other veterans who were once homeless that they can make it, too.
“I'm not an outgoing type of person, but I'm going to try to make myself available and pay back what's been given to me,” he said.