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Homeless Veterans Face Challenges Beyond The Rental Check

"We're at the mercy of the landlords and apartment complexes," Joseph Coles says.
Pam Fessler NPR
"We're at the mercy of the landlords and apartment complexes," Joseph Coles says.

Homeless Veterans Face Challenges Beyond The Rental Check

The Obama administration says it wants to end veterans homelessness by the end of this year — but it's not going to happen. That's partly because, despite government support, many landlords remain reluctant to rent to homeless individuals.

At the end of October, almost 6,200 homeless military veterans had government vouchers to cover their rent, but they had yet to find landlords willing to accept them. Among those vets is Joseph Coles of Washington, D.C., where you're lucky to get a one-bedroom apartment for less than $1,400 a month.

"At one time you could get an apartment anywhere for nothing," Coles says. "Now, with so many people moving in there, we're at the mercy of the landlords and apartment complexes. They can choose who they want and who they don't want."

So Coles, who's been searching since September, has yet to find a place. He's in temporary transitional housing now but doesn't know what he'll do if an apartment doesn't come through soon.

"I shudder to think about that," he says.

The problem is popping up everywhere, especially in tight rental markets like Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Miami, government vouchers will cover $900 a month in rent for a one-bedroom apartment, but those are hard to find.

"We're out there begging, pleading and doing whatever is necessary to persuade landlords to participate in our program," says Ron Book, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which is trying to place 200 homeless vets by year's end. Earlier this month, the trust held a telethon with a local TV station, which produced dozens of promising leads.

Book says they're fighting not only a tight rental market but stereotypes as well.

"Quite candidly, look, there's always going to be some hesitancy by landlords to house somebody that they perceive having lived on the streets," Book says.

Part of his appeal, then, has been to make sure landlords know that their new tenants have been screened and that, once housed, they'll get whatever support they need, like mental health services and job counseling.

Still, Eric Grumdahl, who is coordinating Minnesota's effort to end veterans homelessness, knows landlords are being asked to take a leap of faith. His state recently decided to offer property owners a $1,000 signing bonus for each vet they house by the end of January — "to recognize that we are asking landlords to affirmatively choose to house veterans who, frankly, in this market would be very easy to screen out," Grumdahl says.

"They're often veterans that are facing challenges that may have to do with the fact that they have poor rental history or very little rental history."

And it's not just veterans. Washington, D.C., is trying to house 700 homeless families and another 1,000 individuals as soon as possible. The city just hired a team of navigators to work with potential landlords.

It can be a tough sell, though. Navigator LaShun Lawson recently tried to finalize a deal with property manager Oswald Durant, of Oasis Realty, who has six available units and wants to help — but needs some reassurance.

First, he wants to make sure that the apartments will be inspected by the city quickly, so tenants can move in as soon as possible.

"Because everyone wants it quick," Durant tells Lawson. "You want it quickly. We want it quickly. We definitely don't want to go over 30 days."

The city has agreed to advance Durant $1,000 for each apartment he holds open for a month, until the deal can be finalized.

The guaranteed rental payments are attractive to Durant, but like other landlords, he also worries about getting mired in bureaucracy, or having to deal with a problem tenant on his own.

"So who is it that comes to visit the client in their house every four months? The caseworker?" he asks.

Lawson assures him that the city will be sending caseworkers to make sure the tenants are adjusting and receiving the help they need.

Eventually, Durant agrees, on a trial basis. He says if it works out, he might have some additional units to rent out to homeless families in the future.

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