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Kern County could see the end of veteran homelessness by the end of 2019, experts say
The Bakersfield Californian - 9/29/2018
Sept. 29--For years Kern County has struggled with homelessness among military veterans, but local advocates and housing officials believe that might soon be coming to an end.
Within the next year, experts say, veteran homelessness could be a thing of the past, or at least be reduced to "functional zero."
Zero could potentially already have been reached in Kern County, but a lack of employees at the local Veterans Affairs office prevented housing vouchers from being distributed to homeless veterans.
But after efforts from a local veterans group, the local VA office now is in the process of hiring five new employees, which should allow the agency to find housing for all veterans currently on the streets in the county.
"I've been doing this for 22 years, so I am super excited," said Deborah Johnson, president and CEO of the California Veterans Assistance Foundation, a local nonprofit. "Although it gets kind of scary at the same time because, just when you think you know your (homeless veterans) population and where you're headed, you wonder if there's something else that's going to pop up."
Heather Kimmel, assistant director of the Housing Authority of Kern, said that according to the most recent count, about 83 veterans in Kern County are homeless, with approximately 40 residing on the streets (the remaining 43 live in transitional housing). There are nearly 900 overall home across Kern County.
Most homeless veterans typically can receive some form of housing assistance, of which one is housing vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through its Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing Program.
The vouchers work similar to Section 8 housing, in which the government directly pays landlords a portion of the rent, while the tenant pays the remainder. In order to use the vouchers, veterans must be paired with a team of employees from the VA who provide support services, case management and housing selecting assistance.
Because of a staffing shortage, the local Housing Authority office currently has a backlog of 54 vouchers, which cannot be used because the local VA outpatient clinic did not have the staff to take on any more clients.
"It's a very unified sense of frustration," Kimmel said. "Our local VA staff works very hard, they're passionate about what they do. They want to use these vouchers just as much as we do, but when they can't get staff on board because things are out of their control, it's just a sense of frustration."
The frustration began to ebb in May, when Johnson attended a conference in Washington, D.C., during which she visited Rep. David Valadao's office.
The meeting kick-started a series of actions that resulted in Valadao, along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris writing a letter to the Acting Secretary of the VA Peter O'Rourke to allow the Kern County VA office to hire more employees.
"We know that once those staffers are in place, we're going to make significant progress in knowing that no veteran in our community is going to have to suffer through homelessness," Kimmel said.
Over the past several years, the number of homeless veterans in Kern County has been on the decline.
In Kern County, veterans are spread across more than 8,000 square miles, making it difficult for social workers to get to everybody.
The average age of homeless veterans is between 54 and 62, Johnson said.
She added that there is no single contributing factor to homelessness among veterans. Some veterans accrue injuries after a lifetime of physical labor and can no longer work. Others suffer from substance abuse or mental illness.
"It's usually one issue that leads to another, that leads to a third and a fourth, and that just kind of snowballs," she said.
Kimmel and Johnson believe that with the added staffing levels at the local VA office, the county will have reduced veteran homelessness to a functional zero.
"It doesn't mean that we're going to end homelessness among veterans," Johnson said. "But it does mean that we will get homeless veterans into housing as quickly as possible. It means we'll have a system in place."
Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.
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