ACCESS struggles to find available rentals for homeless veterans
By Kaylee Tornay Posted Aug 23, 2015 at 12:01 AM
Dana Biondo sits reading a book about spiritual secrets to financial prosperity just a few feet away from what has been his home for a month: his Honda Civic. He slept only four hours the night before. He kicks off his shoes and relaxes in Bear Creek Park before he’ll get back in his car and drive to meet a potential employer later.
“I really make it my intention to be grateful,” he says.
Biondo is one of the estimated 462 homeless veterans in Jackson County. ACCESS Inc. hopes to find each one a home with the help of a $6 million, three-year grant awarded in April by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The grant is part of $93 million given to nonprofits across the nation to combat the problem of homelessness among veterans.
Four and a half months later, the organization has placed several veterans in homes but continues to struggle with a low vacancy rate among rentals and a shortage of willing landlords.
ACCESS has been receiving VA grants to aid veterans since 2012, but they were well under $1 million and had to be split with other nonprofits across five counties. With the increased funding, says Support Services Director David Mulig, the organization has vastly more resources to impact the problem of homelessness among veterans.
“We want to make sure any veteran who wants a home has a place to live,” says Mulig.
Finding those veterans — and places to put them — was the next step after securing the money. ACCESS already offered housing services, but ramped up promotion for its new range of veteran services with TV and radio ads. Mulig says more than 200 veterans have called or emailed to receive help in the past two months. Each veteran is assigned to a case manager, also a veteran, who works with them and landlords to find a stable and agreeable housing situation for both.
The nonprofit got more calls from veterans than landlords, unsurprising in an area that had a rental vacancy rate under 2 percent in May. According to Mulig, 48 property owners contacted ACCESS since April about potential rentals; 33 of those ended up committing. Case managers weigh factors such as disabilities or whether a veteran is chronically homeless or has small children to determine priority in being placed when housing is short.
ACCESS offers incentives to landlords for renting to veterans, including guaranteeing rent for the months agreed upon, doubling security deposits and frequently communicating with the tenant’s case manager in case of any problems. Since 2012, Mulig says, ACCESS has placed 297 veterans in households. With family members, that number becomes 451 people. He can recall only one situation in which a tenant had to vacate because of a conflict with a landlord.
“I think that a big part of it is the stereotypes around someone who is homeless,” Mulig says. “If you walk around and talk to people about what they think about the homeless population, they’ll say they’re the ones begging for money, the ones who are always under the influence. There’s this whole stereotype around that kind of homeless individual.”
Biondo, meanwhile, has been lining up interviews and opportunities to find work where he can. He has a range of marketable skills, thanks to years of employment in food service and retail after his service as a Navy cook from 1979 to ’81. Now, he looks to friends for the occasional couch to sleep on or place to shower while he searches for housing with the help of his case manager. He isn’t angry about being homeless after serving his country, he says, but he adds that part of him feels that it’s not right.
“I can’t feel sorry for myself because I’m not the only one,” he says.
ACCESS staff say they want to hear from every veteran in need and every landlord who can offer a place.
“I have learned quickly that the people who come into an organization and ask for help and share their stories must really want to get back and have their lives stabilized,” Mulig says.