Federal funding for homeless vets to come to San Juan County

Federal funding for homeless veterans may be a step in the right direction for the state when it comes to supporting those who have served our country. In the islands, the funds may be more like a band-aid on a wound that continues to bleed.

“It’s frustrating because it’s very limiting to people and there is no prevention funding,” said Erin O’Dell, director of the Orcas Family Resource Center, which is in charge of screening vets for the housing funding.

The federal monies have been dispersed to Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, which has received $776,000 and the Opportunity Council, which has $704,000 through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.

“This program provides rapid rehousing for those without housing, as well as resources to prevent homelessness among those veterans who are at imminent risk of becoming homeless,” said Will Rice, NW Regional Chief of Operations for Catholic Community Services of Western Washington in a press release last Monday.

Catholic Community Services provides help to veterans in Snohomish County. The Opportunity Council serves veterans in Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties and will begin serving San Juan County this year. Family resource centers on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez will help facilitate the use of the money.

The funding comes on the heels of Rep. Rick Larsen’s last trip to the islands where he held roundtable discussions with veterans and pledged to help them with better access to programs dealing with issues like health care.

“Unfortunately many veterans struggle with homelessness,” said Larsen, WA-02, in a press release. “That is why I am a strong supporter of programs like Supportive Services for Veteran Families that enable local organizations to help more of our veterans get permanent housing and on the path to independence.”

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Supportive Services for Veteran Families served 127,829 participants in 2014. It is estimated to serve 135,000 veterans and their family members by the end of 2015.

The question remains: how will the funding affect island vets?

Jennifer Armstrong, director of the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, said the federal grants may not be easy to distribute on the islands because the qualifications from the grants are very specific. Armstrong said vets literally need to be homeless, which is not always the case in this county.

“What I see more frequently are veterans who are having trouble making ends meet, who are at risk of losing their housing or who are living in low-cost, substandard housing like trailers with black mold,” said Armstrong. “Neither one will be addressed with this new source of funding.”

O’Dell on Orcas echoed these concerns, noting that the way the funding works now is that if someone is struggling to make payments on their housing they will have to lose that housing before they qualify for assistance. This is a problem for two reasons – it costs more to rehouse someone then to keep them in housing, and once that place is lost it’s much harder to locate a new dwelling.

O’Dell’s other concern is that the program won’t pay 100 percent of the housing, which in tandem with the housing crisis, creates a dilemma.

“Even people who have money can’t find housing, so even if we identify homeless veterans they are not going to be able to pay for everything,” she said.

But O’Dell is hopeful that it could help at least one or two vets here.

While the funding may be more successful in other communities in the state, as long as the housing crisis continues in the San Juans, staff from the resource centers see a lot of hurdles on the road to success.

Armstrong said veterans are struggling with the same housing issues that everyone is facing, which is the lack of affordable housing.

“It’s nothing specific to veterans, it is just as challenging to them,” she said.

In the past, the only assistance for veterans was an emergency fund out of the county, which left veterans with little hope.

“Some of the guys had tried to get help in the past, but didn’t get anywhere and may have thought, ‘What is the point?’” said Armstrong.

The San Juan Resource Center’s staff plans to help vets by working with different agencies that serve vets to have one unified resource guide of how to help that population.

“We want veterans to be able to walk through one door and find help,” said Armstrong.

Most veterans Armstrong sees are 30 to 50 years old and have families, but she made it clear that they don’t rule out working with any age or with single people.

For the Orcas Island Family Resource Center, there are pros and cons to the new funds.

Beyond the funding, O’Dell said there is possibility for the program to have a greater reach. The resource center is in charge of screening applicants, and those screening documents will be sent to a veterans’ services coordinator for the Opportunity Council in Bellingham, who will use the information to possibly access other benefits for those veterans. Veterans with any housing issues are encouraged to be a part of the screening process.

“This could be the one gem,” she said.

O’Dell has heard stories of vets living in barns on the island and she hopes the screening process can help in those situations.

Overall, O’Dell doesn’t want to sound negative about the funding  – even if it’s not tailor made for this county.

“It is an additional resource,” she said. “And it’s stimulating conversation.”

For county councilman Rick Hughes, the first obstacle will be finding veterans who are willing to ask for assistance.

“We want veterans to reach out,” said Hughes. “We want to know who needs help.”

To contact the resource centers, call 376-3184 for Orcas, 378-5246 for San Juan or 468-4117 for Lopez.