Homelessness among SLO County veterans plunges. Here’s what spurred ‘major success’

In 2015, retired U.S. Army veteran Daniel Pina “hit a wall.”

He lost his home after his career as a commercial truck driver was cut short by a series of health conditions and injuries.

Unable to work due to poor health, Pina became “nomadic,” he said, spending eight years living in a trailer as he moved between North County towns.

Then, in 2022, he learned he was eligible for healthcare and housing assistance military benefits. Now he’s living in a place of his own in Paso Robles, and thankful for the newfound stability in his life.

“When I walked out of the military, I said, ‘I will never need these benefits —I will do well in life. I will never need to be that resourceful. I’ll make it on my own. I’ll have a good retirement,’ ” Pina said. ”That was my plan, but people’s plans don’t always come out the way they want.”

Pina isn’t the only veteran in San Luis Obispo County to make the climb out of homelessness in recent years.

According to the 2022 point-in-time count report, homelessness among veterans in SLO County plunged from 144 to just 16 between 2019 and 2022 — an achievement the report said represented “a major success in outreach and recovery efforts.”

Here’s what spurred this dramatic reduction in homelessness among veterans.

Veteran service changes spurred decline in homelessness

Brandy Graham, program manager at the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County’s Supportive Services for Veterans and Families division, said recent advancements in veteran homelessness support come from the top down.

“We have made a lot of progress in reducing veteran homelessness,” Graham said. “CAPSLO has taken the lead in having what’s called a By Name List, which for the county records all of the homeless veterans that are inquiring about services.”

When CAPSLO first put together the list in 2016, Graham said more than 350 individuals were registered.

Today, there are 30 to 45 veterans on the list at any given time, she said.

Graham said the expanded housing provisions ushered in by the COVID-19 pandemic helped pave the way for some of the techniques used by the program to provide stability to unhoused veterans.

During the height of the pandemic, CAPSLO’s veterans support services program was able to place homeless veterans and their families in hotels rather than congregate shelters for six to eight months at a time, Graham said.

While that time has since been cut to around 60 days, that temporary placement helps keep veterans from straying off the path to permanent housing, she said.

A change implemented by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in 2022 saw the definition of allowable expenses expand to include incentive payments for landlords who accepted veteran tenants who use housing assistance vouchers.

“For those individuals that are facing significant barriers, like little or no income, poor credit, criminal histories (or) poor rental histories, that’s a very big barrier to overcome with a landlord,” Graham said. “We’re able to give a landlord incentive for that landlord to take a chance on that veteran household, and give them a little bit more of an upper hand in getting into a unit that they wouldn’t qualify for otherwise.”

In recent years, the VA has expanded its care to more veterans by raising its area median income cap from 50% to 80%, meaning veterans can make more money and still qualify for VA benefits such as healthcare and housing aid they never had access to before, Graham said.

One of those benefits is the federal Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program, commonly referred to as HUD VASH, Graham said.

Crystal Fischer, a social work supervisor who administers HUD VASH for San Luis Obispo and Kern counties, said the program provides housing vouchers and intensive case management to homeless veterans.

Importantly, the vouchers circumvent the long wait times that come with standard Section 8 housing vouchers, Fischer said.

“You hear about the 10-year, 15-year waiting list with Section 8 — it’s not like that,” Fischer said. “Once we identify (a veteran), we screen them to make sure they’re eligible, and we can start that process right away for requesting a voucher moving forward.”

Like a Section 8 voucher, a veterans housing voucher only take a small cut of the veteran’s income and subsidizes the rest, Fischer said.

In the past two years, Fischer’s department has been able to keep staff positions filled more consistently, which has allowed it to expedite the application process, she said.

SLO County veteran: Dream of leaving homelessness is becoming real

According to Pina, his life has not followed the trajectory he envisioned when he first enlisted in the Army.

Pina said he first joined the Army in 1975 out of a sense of duty to the American prisoners of war still in captivity in Vietnam.

“I thought that was unfair, and there was no way I would let one of our guys stay there,” Pina said.

However, Pina’s military career was cut short when he was was medically discharged from the Army less than a year after he enlisted.

Pina’s left leg was “severely damaged” in a vehicle accident at a charity event near his training base that ripped through every ligament and tendon in his knee and broke off bone chips from his kneecap that lodged in the knee joint, he said.

After returning to his hometown of Oxnard to recover, Pina worked as a commercial driver and in management. He then decided to return to junior college, where he was certified as a building and plumbing inspector.

In 2010, he encountered a setback when a combination of health conditions — including hepatitis C, stage 3 liver disease, hemochromatosis, which causes iron buildups in the body, and a bad fall from his truck that re-injured his knees and back — forced Pina into an early retirement at 55.

“I got cut short 10 years in my my career, so that didn’t do much for finances,” Pina said. “I found myself going from a good job to being on Social Security disability, and that’s where the troubles began with the homelessness.”

Pina used the money from a small settlement with his former company to buy a trailer home for his truck, which served as his home from 2016 to 2022.

In August 2022, Pina learned his military benefits would allow him to find housing assistance and reached out to CAPSLO’s veterans support services program in Paso Robles for help.

The next month, the office’s case managers “went to work” on his case, Pina said.

By the end of October, he had a subsidized senior apartment in Paso Robles to call his own.

Pina said the office also helped him find and buy secondhand furniture, cleaning supplies and other household wares.

“The more I did this, the more confident I became,” Pina said. “Yes, this dream is becoming real.”

Brandy Graham, a program manager at CAPSLO’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) talks about declines in veteran homelessness in recent years.
Brandy Graham, a program manager at CAPSLO’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) talks about declines in veteran homelessness in recent years.

Changes veteran homelessness care seem to be working

The decline in homelessness among local veterans mirrors regional and national trends.

Nationally, veteran homelessness has decreased by around 11% since January 2020, Fischer said. Since 2010, its declined by 55%.

Veteran Affairs’ Greater Los Angeles Health Care system, which includes Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties, placed 1,301 homeless veterans into housing in 2022, Fischer said.

“That all goes back to the efforts to work with all our community partners across the region, to make sure everyone’s resources are being used as effectively as possible,” Fischer said.

Graham said, in San Luis Obispo County, veterans who use HUD VASH vouchers are usually housed in less than 90 days.

That’s because case management services, which include bi-monthly case conferencing sessions that keep veteran clients on track, take care of the veterans’ paperwork and day-to-day needs both before and after being housed — ensuring that they are less likely to return to homelessness, she said.

For Pina, who does not own a computer, this quick connection to online housing applications was a big part of the program’s value.

“Everything I’m doing, I’m doing on a cell phone, but they have all the contacts and they just do a fantastic job,” Pina said. “They’re experts at what they do — I owe them a lot. I could never repay them.”