Portland and Multnomah County are close to a major milestone.
By the end of the year, the city is on track to move more than 690 homeless veterans into houses and apartments. That could add Portland to the ranks of cities like New Orleans and Houston, which say they have effectively ended veterans homelessness.
It’s a striking accomplishment in a city that lacks an estimated 24,000 units of affordable housing, and where rents are rising $100 a month.
“I want other veterans to know that there is help out there for them. All they have to do is ask for it,” says Randy Vickery, a 51-year-old U.S. Army veteran.
Vickery has a home again, thanks to major new federal investment in housing for veterans.
Over the past five years, the Obama administration and Congress have tripled the funding for housing assistance for vets, and challenged mayors to use those federal dollars to end veterans homelessness in 2015.
I want other veterans to know that there is help out there for them. All they have to do is ask for it.
U.S. Army veteran Randy Vickery
Vickery lives in a one-bedroom apartment just a few blocks from the Willamette River. He moved in two months ago. His living room is tidy and warm.
“This is an energy efficient building, so I haven’t even had to turn my heater on yet,” he says.
His unit is part of an affordable complex called Gray’s Landing. Vickery pays for his utilities, and a federal rent assistance voucher covers most of his rent.
“I can’t tell you how much the rent is, cause I really don’t know. I pay $35 a month. I take that back, it’s down, $34 dollars a month,” he says.
Vickery’s two small terriers, Tara and Crummy, patrol the couch. He bends down to scratch Crummy’s head, and points out how he takes good care of the dog. Vickery says last year, he lost everything except his little dog.
“I had to take care of him, so he kept me going,” he says.
Vickery was homeless for about six months. His problems started, he says, when he developed carpel tunnel syndrome in both hands.
“You know, it was like a spiral downhill thing. I couldn’t do anything,” he says.
Vickery spent six years in the Army as an equipment specialist. After he was discharged, he worked in warehouses for 25 years. When surgery left him unable to lift the pallets and merchandise, he lost his job with United Grocers. Then he lost his apartment.
Vickery moved into his car, and when that got towed, he lived in a tent.
Then Vickery heard about the downtown Community Resource and Referral Center, run by the Portland branch of Veterans Affairs.
Within a week, he says, a caseworker signed him up for a federal rent assistance voucher and helped Vickery find temporary housing. A nonprofit, the Portland Animal Welfare team, gave him free veterinary care for the dogs.
In January, encouraged by the federal funding, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales pledged to end veterans homelessness in the city and Multnomah County by the end of the year.
That meant finding homes for 690 homeless veterans, according to the city’s estimates.
Even with access to the federal rent assistance dollars, “it was a real lift,” says Mary Carroll, who coordinates the A Home for Every Veteran campaign for Multnomah County.
The Portland metro area has relatively little government owned housing, which meant Carroll needed to convince private landlords to rent their vacant units to previously homeless vets.
“We don’t have enough affordable housing units in our Home Forward portfolio or even our nonprofit portfolio, so we knew we had to go out and recruit private landlords to help us,” Carroll says.
Carroll’s team worked with Multifamily Northwest, the local rental housing association, and sent a letter to 600 landlords and property managers.
Carroll asked them to notify her if they had available units, and promised to get the landlords an application from a qualified veteran with a voucher within three days. Her team produced a video urging landlords to work with them.
When that wasn’t enough, Mayor Hales, Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury followed up with personal phone calls to landlords.
“It was the phone calls that really opened the doors, literally,” says Carroll.
The campaign has paid off. According to Carroll, Portland is housing about 64 homeless veterans every month, twice the rate of just a year ago.
A key challenge is making sure those veterans stay housed.
“They face the same kinds of risks that tenants in the private market face, rent increases, no cause evictions,” she says.
To address those risks, Carroll’s team has created a hotline landlords can call if problems arise, and a “risk mitigation fund” — a pool of money for pay for any damage to units.
“A veteran kept loosing his key and kept prying off the screen to get into the unit, so they replaced it, and they made extra keys for the veteran,” Carroll says.
Despite the progress, challenges remain. The city’s initial estimate that 690 veterans would experience homelessness this year is an underestimate.
A Home For Every Veteran had housed 631 veterans as of November, the latest month that data was available. The team knows of 240 more who still need housing; of those, 190 have vouchers and are in the process of apartment hunting.
Every week, new veterans are becoming homeless.
“We’ll have shelter space available for veterans while they’re in that housing process, but our ultimate goal is to get them re-housed as quickly as we can,” says Mark Jolin, who coordinates efforts to house the homeless for Multnomah County, Portland and Gresham.
Jolin says local leaders understand that ending veterans homelessness is “not a one-time activity,” and will require ongoing local and federal investment.
To that end, he says Portland is requesting additional long-term rent assistance vouchers for veterans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Jolin says he also expects the city to invest millions more in programs intended to prevent homelessness by helping low-income renters cover temporary gaps in their income, or the costs of relocating after a no-fault eviction.
“We don’t have as much investment in prevention as we need,” he says.
Meanwhile, in East Portland, veterans Scottie Carpenter and Mallory Hawke and their roommate Joe Paulson are packing up their apartment on 122nd Avenue.
In October, the three roommates received a notice of eviction without any stated cause. They have to be out by the first week of January.
“I feel like it was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” she says.
The company that’s evicting them, Princeton Property Management, has been one of the city’s key private partners in the campaign to end veteran homelessness.
Princeton has referred 18 units to the veteran’s housing initiative, and in October, Commissioner Saltzman recognized the company’s contribution with an award.
“I do think it’s hypocritical,” Carpenter says. “If you’re getting awards for helping get vets off the streets, and then you’re turning around and evicting vets.”
Amy Alaca, Princeton’s director of operations, says the company manages more than 10,000 units and doesn’t track whether its tenants are veterans.
She says that there were “issues” with the tenants, and says the company will not significantly increase the rent when it puts the unit back on the market.
“I know that there’s a perception that people are being evicted because the rents are being hiked up. That is happening in some parts of town. But we don’t do that, unless we’re upgrading an entire complex,” she says.
Hawke, who is a full time student at Mount Hood Community College, found an apartment in Troutdale and is renting it on her own. It’s costing her $2,566.46 to move in.
“It’s half of my savings,” she says.
Hawke pays for her classes using the G.I. Bill, and is covering her living expenses by taking out loans.
“Honestly, I’ll probably be in debt for the rest of my life,” she says.
Carpenter is 45 years old, and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. He works part time as a cook at the Oregon Zoo, and keeps photos on his phone of extravagant meals he’s cooked for friends. He’s struggled off and on with mental health issues.
“Most of my adult life has been: take one step forward, two steps back,” he says. “I feel like I’ll be stuck at this poverty level the rest of my life.”
Carpenter is searching for a place he and Paulson can rent together. He knows he might be able to get housing assistance through Veterans Affairs, but he doesn’t want to leave his roommate.
“Joe is my family,” he says. “He’s like a brother to me. They could probably put me into a place, but he would still be homeless.”
With just a few weeks left before their deadline, they still haven’t found a new home.
I feel like I’ll be stuck at this poverty level the rest of my life.
U.S. Navy veteran Scottie Carpenter
“When I was younger, I did some homeless time. Being younger, I could handle it. I’m old now. I can’t do that any more,” Carpenter says.
But Carpenter and Paulson have a plan. They want to move to Reno or Spokane. They’ve heard that for $800, you can still get a two-bedroom apartment there.