August 18, 2022 Dena Jensen
Sent: Thursday, August 18, 2022, 06:32:14 PM PDT
Subject: Transcription of remarks made about barriers to homeless sheltering and housing for veterans in Whatcom County at the August 4, 2022, Whatcom County Coalition To End Homelessness (WCCEH) meeting
Dear Whatcom County Council:
I am including in this email a of remarks made by Gary Dolan [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] at the August 4, 2022, Whatcom County Coalition To End Homelessness (WCCEH) meeting. Mr. Dolan [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] is a licensed clinical social worker supporting homeless veterans and permanent supportive housing in Whatcom County through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD VASH). I believe his expertise, experience, and perspective is helpful in understanding some of the significant challenges faced, not only by veterans experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County, but civilian individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, as well.
Before providing that transcription of Mr. Dolan’s [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] remarks, I wanted to note that I recently listened to the presentation given by the Opportunity Council near the beginning of your August 8, 2022 Committee of the Whole meeting regarding an update on the re-stabilizaton plan being implemented for the 22 North permanent supportive housing community.
I was surprised that despite the fact it was revealed that there has been a startling deficit of staffing (i.e supportive services) which residents of 22 North had endured for seemingly much of the pandemic years, Council Member Kershner remained puzzled as to why safety concerns had not been addressed during that time. As I understood it from the presentation by the Opportunity Council’s Housing Development and Operations Manager, permanent supportive housing at 22 North had been operating on only 3 out of 14 staff positions filled. And the Opportunity Council had additionally recently added two other positions they felt would provide critical measures for the success of that residential community, as well as for the well-being of surrounding community residents and businesses.
My concerns about remarks from both Council Members Kershner and Frazey are that they did not seem to acknowledge the dramatic effect insufficient staffing – which would, in turn, reflect insufficient services being supplied to residents with acute needs – would have in impacting safety there at 22 North and the surrounding community. It seems unnecessarily punitive and harmful to chronically homeless individuals (who have significant mental and behavioral health service needs) for anyone to suggest dealing out additional consequences to residents for unsafe conditions, or posing more barriers to entrance to 22 North housing, now that previously absent services at that facility are just beginning to be provided.
I call on all Council Members to continue to proactively increase your understanding of the needs of individuals chronically experiencing homelessness and how you can encourage and empower community members to meet those needs. I believe that it will help you all come to an understanding that doing so can be financially beneficial to our community and can increase the level of well-being in Whatcom County.
Here is a link to a recording of the full 8/4/22 WCCEH meeting, which will provide even more information and perspective regarding homeless services, and the gaps in them, in Whatcom County. (I am hoping that the WCCEH will soon begin to post recordings of their meetings themselves): https://www.facebook.com/HomesNowNotLater/videos/3272637999666058/
Below are remarks Mr. Dolan [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] presented at that meeting:
“HUD VASH is a program by which the Department of Veteran Affairs has worked with HUD to provide housing vouchers – section 8 housing vouchers to homeless veterans.
“Currently in Whatcom County we have right around fifty-six or fifty-seven vouchers. And we’re – I would say that eighty or ninety percent of those are filled.
“The problem that we’re having right now is that it’s impossible to find an apartment, and if we do find an apartment, all the prices of these apartments are higher than the payment standards that are set by the Department – I’m sorry, by the Housing Authority.
“So, the other thing that we’re running into is that we also only have one emergency shelter, basically Base Camp. And a lot of veterans don’t like staying there.
“So what happens is, is if we have a homeless veteran in Whatcom County and they can get referred to me and to Opportunity Council to get involved with the VASH program – lost my place, sorry – if we can get these people involved and get the process moving, then sometimes we can get the Housing Authority to move a little bit faster.
“But right now I just want you all to know, when we refer someone to the Housing Authority and they fill out an application, it can take upwards to two months or more sometimes to actually get them approved and to start looking for housing. And in the meantime, a lot of these people are not comfortable staying at the Base Camp and so they’re sleeping outside, or they’re setting up tents on the street, or whatever.
“The homeless situation in my opinion is still quite serious and seems to be growing day by day and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find appropriate housing for these individuals.
“The other thing that’s going on that makes things a little bit more complicated is that we have a lot more – this is my opinion right now – a lot more street violence and we have a lot more dissatisfaction in general with homelessness and how people are feeling about the fact that they are homeless.
“So what we try to do is the following. If a homeless veteran is interested in HUD VASH housing, they can either call me or they can call the Opportunity Council directly. They will announce themselves as a homeless veteran and then they will conduct an intake.
“Once that intake is conducted, then it’s sent to Coordinated Entry. And then Coordinated Entry will determine this person’s eligibility on a simple level. And then, it’s quite often referred to me or my partner Josh. And then we will look into their eligibility and see if indeed they are really eligible.
“And sometimes, if they’re not, I can now request an extension, to have their eligibility extended – let’s put it that way. And I’ve been able to get permission to house a few extra veterans that normally would not have been eligible.
“But the problem is we don’t have housing. And the housing is so expensive that it’s difficult to find a place for these people to live.”
It was clarified that a section 8 voucher is a permanent subsidy as long as the veteran complies with the program.
“Usually what I do is when I get a referral on a veteran, the Opportunity Council goes through a program that they use to find out if the person is eligible. I have a more sophisticated way of doing that by going into the database and the only thing I can tell you is that if the person is in the VA database, that usually means that they’re eligible for housing and it’s hard for me to explain to you what the rules are because they don’t seem to apply evenly all the time to everybody.
“So if a person is eligible for housing, then I will call that individual, or my partner will, and we’ll try to do a screening. Once we do a screening, we bring the individual in and we begin the application process.
“It is important to note right now that it seems to be much more difficult to get veterans involved in HUD VASH. We have reduced veterans homelessness in Whatcom County, supposedly by around eighty or eighty-five percent.
“So a lot of times the people that are left that we are trying to bring in for housing are the people who are much more chronically homeless, mentally ill, and/or drug addicted. And so therefore, working with these people is a long, and often arduous, hopefully rewarding process, but difficult, to say the least.
“I work with Teri and the Coordinated Entry people at Opportunity Council to try to get these people involved and it’s quite difficult. Many of them don’t have telephones.
“Many of them don’t have access to anything and so it’s difficult to find them. So therefore, we use the HOT team to track down some of these individuals and try to get them scheduled. It’s a very, very, very difficult and often complicated process.
“I have spoken to the Housing Authority recently, in terms of their administrators about seeing what they can do to make the process – the application process a little quicker. And I’ve been told that they’re working on it and there should be some changes coming this next coming year.
Mr. Dolan [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] was asked if most of the veterans he serves have an honorable discharge to which he responded:
“No. Quite a few of them do. Quite a few of them have them have different, mixed up discharge – discharges, and a lot of times I have to call my friend Liz to get an understanding of what some of those are because it gets very complicated.
“But this last year, eligibility was extended. And so, under certain circumstances, I can take a person who normally would not have been eligible and I can get permission to go ahead and house them.
“My biggest problem again, right now, is the fact that I can’t help always make contact with these individuals and they don’t have the experience in their lives to keep an appointment, to schedule an appointment, to know when it is and to follow through with it.
“So I’ve been using the HOT team more and more to contact these individuals, and sometimes it’s just not very successful.
“But the housing is permanent, affordable housing and we have different vouchers. We have vouchers for what we call tenant-based housing, which means that if the person gets a tenant-based voucher, with our help, he can go out into the community and try to find an apartment that falls within the purview of the payment standard of the Housing Authority. And then we can move them in.
“I have a special arrangement with the Elks Club to provide those individuals, if they do move into an apartment with a very nice five or six hundred dollar move-in package that includes a bed and all kinds of the things that they would need to get started in their apartment.”
“The project-based vouchers are a little bit more complicated and I don’t know how much we want to go into that today. But a project-based voucher means that apartment buildings in Whatcom County – we have anywhere from five to ten apartments that are designated specifically for veterans.
“And that veteran would make a decision about whether or not he wants to apply for housing in one of those units. Those units are usually a little bit more restrictive. They’re – they have a lot more security. They have a lot more rules. And it’s been challenge, indeed, to make project-based housing successful. But we’re doing it. We have City Gate. We have 22 North. And we have Francis Place.
“And right now Francis Place is – has a share of five vouchers. We have four, and we’re still trying to do one. City Gate has between ten and thirteen, and 22 North has five.”
“Basically speaking, Josh and I, who are the VA social workers, we are licensed, clinical social workers. Our job is to provide housing and to provide the wherewithal for that veteran to keep his housing and not lose it.
“So we end up doing a lot of critical therapeutic interventions with veterans in order to keep them in housing. And these therapeutic interventions are related to my license or Josh’s license and this is not anything that a case manager at Opportunity Council or project-based units can do.
“So therefore, if a veteran is placed in housing, then it’s my job to make sure that that person works through whatever psychological or financial or emotional issues he has to go through in order to maintain that permanent housing. And as you are all aware, that, in an of itself can be quite a challenge.
“I think it’s important for everybody to realize that – I mean, I’m sure you do, and I think from what I’m hearing today, I can see my need to become more involved in the coalition – but we strongly believe that Housing First is important.
“And the process of taking a veteran and trying to make sure that he or she is eligible for housing and can obtain it is often quite a project.
“We spend a lot of time talking to real estate companies. We spend a lot of time talking to private owners to see whether or not they have the ability to house a homeless veteran.
“When a veteran does apply, the real estate company or the owner of the property will run a background check and sometimes there are things that show up on the background check that would preclude that person from being housed in that particular facility.”
“It’s interesting, but for the number of years I’ve been here, which is about twelve, most of my veterans were single individuals. We seem to be getting more referrals on families. Right now, I’m working with a woman and her child who are fleeing domestic violence and we have them temporarily housed in a motel. And we’re working desperately to try to find permanent, affordable housing for this lady and her child.”
“I think it’s important for people to understand that the amount of time and effort that we put in to find permanent housing for a person who is chronically homeless, or mentally ill, or drug addicted is far greater than anything I would have anticipated prior to my becoming part of the VA. It’s a challenging process.
“And the other thing is, is that there are a lot of people who don’t want homeless people in their community. And I think we’ve been pretty successful in some areas in fighting that, but it’s still an issue, and it does take a lot of time.
“I mean, we could easily have three HUD VASH workers up here trying to take care of all the homeless population. And we still have a large number of people that are living out in the woods or they’re in camps, and so therefore the work with the HOT team is very important and actually, they’re a great group of people.
”This ends my transcription of Mr. Dolan’s [sic – correct spelling is Dolin] remarks.
I think the barriers to gaining and retaining shelter and housing in Whatcom County that Mr. Dolan highlighted are very important for Council Members to reflect on and to take prompt action to pursue progress in addressing. You have many community members who are concerned and eager to volunteer and otherwise be involved in creating solutions. I call on you to pursue all avenues, including ones you have not yet embarked on, to providing resources and encouragement for them to do so.
Birch Bay, WA
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