A program stalled by the coronavirus pandemic, but now benefiting from federal relief funding, has hit upon an opportune moment to help homeless veterans.
“These individuals chose to serve our country and ended up homeless for one reason or another,” said Alison Gerbig program manager of Homes for All Veterans, a program of Rocky Mountain Human Services. “If we can provide them with safe, stable housing and that connection to others, they’re going to be much better off.”
The organization is paying for 317 homeless veterans to temporarily live in motels across the state, through emergency housing assistance being offered to agencies serving homeless veterans nationwide. Of those, 109 are staying in nine Colorado Springs motels, Gerbig said.
After the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, a push began to remove homeless military veterans from the streets to prevent the virus from spreading in shelters and protect high-risk people from being exposed to the virus. Restrictions on using the money were loosened so that more veterans could quickly access temporary housing.
“We’re basically running a giant shelter now in motels,” Gerbig said.
The goal now is to help the veterans that are in motels move into stable housing using COVID relief funding, Gerbig said. An infusion of coronavirus funds has more than doubled Rocky Mountain Human Services’ statewide budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, she said.
“Motel rooms are expensive and not designed for long-term housing,” she said. “We need to utilize emergency housing assistance as a short-term solution to save lives and limit the spread of COVID, but we would rather use these funds to permanently house our veterans and support landlords in our community.”
With nearly $8 million from both the federal CARES Act relief monies and its annual allocation from the Veterans Administration, this could be the year that the organization’s Homes for All Veterans program fulfills its vision of ending veterans' homelessness, Gerbig said.
“We can put money into supporting veterans longer than we’ve ever been able to do,” she said. “So people aren’t going to fall again.”
The opportunity to get off the streets, even into a motel room, has been a blessing, said John, who declined to give his full name.
“Everybody says military people are heroes,” he said. “These people are angels.”
He’s entering his fourth month of staying in a local motel courtesy of Rocky Mountain Human Services, after being homeless for four years and sleeping in shelters, in his car and here and there.
In the Army, he was a cook stationed in Germany. As a civilian, John worked as an information technology specialist. But a few years ago, he developed health problems, lost his income and then his home.
In a short time, John said he went from owning a respectable 2,300-square-foot house on Colorado Springs’ east side to living in his car with his chocolate Lab.
“Any way you come into homelessness it’s traumatic,” he said. “You feel guilty, you worry you did something to mess up, you’re embarrassed.
“The people you see on the streets carrying everything they own in a backpack or a shopping cart aren’t bad people. A lot of it is circumstances beyond their doing.”
The next step for Rocky Mountain Human Services is to receive buy-in from landlords.
A wanted ad could read something like, "Needed: Residential and commercial housing owners willing to take a calculated risk."
The organization is searching for landlords to provide bedrooms in homes, empty vacation rentals, duplexes or apartment complexes for veterans at a rate they can afford, about $460 a month.
Veterans are not required to pass a drug or alcohol test or be examined for mental health problems at the outset, but they must sign a lease and agree to receive ongoing case management. They also can be connected with support for addiction and mental and physical health concerns.
“If we can move veterans quickly into housing without preconditions and qualifications, on a housing first model, then we can end veteran homelessness,” Gerbig said.
Shared or collaborative housing doesn’t work for all veterans, she said, but is doable for the majority. A program in Los Angeles has succeeded and is a model local agencies serving homeless veterans want to emulate, Gerbig said.
“There are a lot of benefits to it besides affordability,” she said. “People build a community and being around others motivates you to get yourself going in the right direction.”
An estimated 384 veterans are homeless in Colorado Springs and another 800 in Denver, with a total of 1,400 statewide.
Under the program, the organization pays all or part of the rent for a period of time, so the residents can pay off debt, save money or buy necessities, with the idea they will be able to pay the rent by themselves once the financial support ends.
Most veterans have an income, Gerbig said, such as the base disability payment of $783 a month, or Social Security or VA compensation.
“They could pay their own rent, but they need it to be affordable,” she said. “This might be a stepping-stone to another housing type, but for many it could be their lifelong home.”
Veterans in the program also learn budgeting skills, how to be a good renter and get connected to resources such as health care, food, clothing and jobs.
Landlords are protected from damages under Pikes Peak Veterans Housing Fund, a new charitable fund Colorado Springs launched in February. Public donations, which are nearing $80,000, will cover damages done to properties that rent to individual veterans or families.
Though most homeless veterans have figurative baggage, such as past trauma, PTSD, addiction, bad credit, previous eviction, a criminal history or other issues, property destruction is rare, Gerbig said, because renters take pride in living in a place they can call their own.
For the past three years, Liz Czyszczon has been renting the duplex she owns on Colorado Springs’ west side to four individual veterans who had been homeless. The tenants have not been too much trouble, she said.
“It’s a new experience, but we decided to try it,” she said. “They are usually very quiet people, and they help each other. Maybe only one has a car and gives the others rides to the store or doctor.”
One of the tenants had a drinking problem, but after Czyszczon told Rocky Mountain Human Services, the organization worked with the man, who agreed to seek treatment.
“The office wants to help solve any issues,” she said. “These people need a second chance to be able to stand up on their own feet and get better. We need to help them.”
This article has been updated to correct Denver and statewide numbers of homeless veterans.