- Associated Press - Monday, January 4, 2016

LAREDO, Texas (AP) - John Perez thinks back on his experience in war as a time when life made sense.

Deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the Marines, he served as an operations specialist, arranging the logistics for truck convoys delivering fuel and supplies to U.S. troops. He enjoyed the complexity of the work as much as the clarity of purpose.

What bewildered him was returning to the civilian world after his honorable discharge in 2008.

The San Antonio Express-News (https://bit.ly/1TsmDr4 ) reports that he left the military hoping to save a marriage that unspooled over the next two years. In 2012, he lost his job at a retail store when his bosses refused to alter his work schedule so that he could attend community college.

As Perez began taking classes, he ran through a series of low-wage jobs that paid too little for him to keep his apartment. By this summer, he had slipped into homelessness, couch-surfing from one friend’s house to another.

He recovered a measure of stability in August after learning about a veterans transitional center housed inside the Rio Grande Plaza Hotel on the fringe of Laredo’s downtown. Since opening in February, the program has provided shelter for more than 100 homeless veterans, creating a refuge from uncertainty.

“This place has been a godsend,” said Perez, 29, looking out the wall-to-wall windows on one side of his seventh-floor room, with views of the border-town sprawl that spreads across the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo. “It gives you a chance to catch your breath.”

But the forces of progress soon will engulf the oasis. The center closed Thursday because of the hotel’s pending sale and renovation, and half the 28 veterans enrolled in the program at the start of December will have moved out by month’s end.

Perez and the others will hold on to their rooms until late spring in exchange for working at the hotel 100 hours a month, tending to maintenance, housekeeping and similar tasks. Then they, too, must pack up and leave.

“It’s a blow,” said Perez, who attends Texas A&M; International University on the GI Bill and wants to teach high school. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Laredo tops $700 a month, and he wonders if more couch-surfing lies ahead. “I try not to dwell on that.”

The center’s demise on the last day of 2015 overlapped with the passing of a five-year deadline for a national campaign to end veterans homelessness. President Barack Obama and federal officials set that target date when they launched the initiative in 2010.

The effort, if failing to reach its original goal, has succeeded in reducing the number of veterans living on the streets and in shelters by more than a third, from 74,000 to fewer than 48,000.

Much of the decline has occurred in large metro areas, including San Antonio, where housing officials had placed 694 veterans in permanent housing this year as of Dec. 15.

Houston, Las Vegas and New Orleans are among a handful of cities where officials declared in the past year that they had eliminated veterans homelessness. Virginia’s governor announced last month that his state had accomplished the feat.

A federal rental assistance program run by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs has proven crucial to the campaign across the country.

Eligible veterans receive a voucher that covers 70 percent or more of their rent, and they gain access to mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, job training and other support services.

HUD has awarded 79,000 vouchers since 2008, with 650 vouchers allocated to San Antonio, one of some 225 cities that signed on to a nationwide initiative to end veterans homelessness this year. Local officials credit the program with helping to lower a homeless veterans population that was estimated at 849 to 1,000 in January.

By contrast, Laredo has received 15 vouchers, a consequence of joining the program only this year, after the VA hired a housing case manager to work at its outpatient clinic here. Veterans advocates calculate that 75 to 110 former service members lack permanent housing in the city of 250,000 residents.

Given the scarcity of vouchers, the veterans center has lightened the burden on Laredo’s emergency and transitional shelters.

John Navarro, 25, a former Army specialist diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder linked to his tour in Iraq in 2011, struggled to find work after leaving the military and returning to his native Laredo two years ago. Running out of family and friends with whom he could live, he moved into the transitional center this summer.

In January, he will start classes at Laredo Community College using the GI Bill while working at the hotel to hang on to his room. The program has given him a sense of direction that he has sought since the Army.

“This isn’t some vacation home,” he said. “You’re here because you’re trying to get your life together. That’s why you hate to see it closing.”

Gabriel Lopez founded the South Texas Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Association in 2008. A veteran of both wars, he had come back to his hometown of Laredo a year earlier following two decades in the Navy.

He formed the advocacy and support group in part to ease his re-entry into civilian life. Yet shadowed by anxiety and depression from his combat tours, he wound up homeless for a time.

The ordeal shaped his belief that, then as now, the city lags in responding to an obvious and deepening need.

“The problem of homeless veterans is real and it’s right in front of us,” he said. “Politicians always say they want to help when it’s election time. After that, they disappear.”

Lopez organized the veterans transitional center after Bill Collier, the Plaza’s primary owner, approached him about a plan to house former service members.

A Lubbock oilman whose late father served in World War II, Collier, who knew of Lopez’s advocacy work, offered to provide rent-free rooms to homeless veterans. Lopez agreed to coordinate the transitional program, connecting them to support services through the VA and nonprofit groups that could steer them toward independence.

The two men anticipated that the center would attract perhaps 10 to 15 veterans. By spring, more than 40 had moved into the 15-story hotel, some with spouses and young children.

The Plaza had plenty of vacancies among its 207 rooms to accommodate them. Built in 1975 and resembling a giant Gatling gun barrel propped upright, the hotel shows signs of age - threadbare carpet, scuffed walls, wan lighting - that might provoke paying guests to demand a refund.

For Manuel Martinez, on the other hand, Room 507 feels like something better than home. “To me, this is heaven,” he said.

Martinez, 56, finished a six-year stint in the Army in 1983. Following his divorce in 1995, he slipped in and out of homelessness and sobriety for much of the next 20 years, wandering from Florida to Minnesota, Virginia to North Dakota.

The Laredo native heard about the transitional center when he traveled home in the spring to look after his dying mother. His room’s sparse furnishings consist of two beds, two chairs and a dresser, along with a table and TV. A coffee maker sits atop a small refrigerator that on a recent afternoon was bare except for a jar of mayonnaise and a hunk of cheese. A paper plate on the dresser held a couple of brittle tortillas.

“Look at all this,” Martinez said with a smile. Slight of build, he stood in the middle of the room, thin arms stretched wide as if welcoming the sunlight through the windows. “Am I lucky or what?”

He will stay at the hotel for another few months, making use of his construction and carpentry skills around the property while continuing to search for a job with Lopez’s guidance.

“I’m tired of being on the streets,” he said. “I want to work.”

The hotel’s imminent sale coincides with the construction of an outlet mall on an adjacent property. Collier, who estimates the Plaza will require as much as $4 million to renovate, hopes the new owners will retain the remaining veterans as employees.

Along with two friends, he has pumped more than $300,000 into the transitional center, including utilities and other operating expenses. In August, attempting to defray costs, he changed the rent-free policy, charging those who stayed longer than 90 days a maximum of $225 a month. (Veterans unable to afford that amount paid less.)

Collier has solicited support from city officials to relocate the program to one of any number of vacant buildings in Laredo. He has heard nothing in response.

“They all want to talk about veterans, especially if they get in front of a TV camera or a crowd,” he said. “But then they never follow through.”

Mayor Pete Saenz replied to an interview request about the veterans center with a three-paragraph statement emailed through a spokeswoman.

Calling the program’s closing “a great loss,” he wrote, “I am confident that our other agencies will help to fill that void.”

In August, the city council approved a measure to give veterans priority on the waiting list for city-owned rental units. Webb County Commissioner Jaime Canales, who has talked with Collier about how to rescue the program, conceded that public officials “haven’t backed up their rhetoric to step up for veterans.”

“We have to act now,” he said. “It’s a responsibility we all bear at the local, state and federal levels.”

HUD conducts a so-called point-in-time count of the country’s homeless population every January. The process produces a hazy snapshot, taking into account only those living on the streets or in shelters while failing to tally people staying with families and friends.

The count for San Antonio at the start of this year identified 284 homeless veterans. To obtain a clearer picture, officials in the Department of Human Services first pored over figures in the city’s homeless information database, then projected the monthly number of veterans entering the social services system.

The analysis suggested that to attain “functional zero” - a designation that typically excludes the chronically homeless, who resist support services for an array of reasons - the city would need to find permanent housing for 849 to 1,000 veterans.

Noting that the city had housed nearly 700 veterans through mid-December, Melody Woosley, the agency’s director, predicted San Antonio will eclipse the 1,000 mark by the end of March. Yet she resisted referring to that scenario as the “end” of veterans homelessness.

“We don’t want to take our foot off the pedal and slow things down,” she said.

San Antonio native Robert Gill counts as one of the former service members that the city moved into permanent housing this year.

The Army veteran, who deployed twice to Vietnam, served 23 years in prison after he triggered the state’s three-strikes law in 1992 with his third drug-related conviction.

He gained his freedom this spring as part of Obama’s ongoing push to grant clemency to nonviolent drug offenders saddled with long prison terms.

Gill, 66, entered a halfway house in San Antonio after his release. In early December, his case manager with Family Endeavors, a nonprofit organization that works with the city to place veterans in permanent housing, notified him that a landlord had approved his rental application.

He moved into his one-bedroom apartment on the Northwest Side earlier this month, paying $288 in rent from his monthly Social Security check of $753. He wakes up each morning feeling reborn.

“You look around, you see what you have been blessed with, you see how much the community has reached out to you,” said Gill, who attends drug counseling as part of the voucher program. “It’s sort of a dream come true.”

The resources available in San Antonio dwarf those of Laredo, where last December the VA hired Jennifer Roby as its lone housing case manager based in the city.

The point-in-time count occurred a few weeks later and identified five homeless veterans - or half as many as Roby had encountered in her first month on the job.

She has placed 15 veterans in permanent housing with the vouchers that HUD awarded to Laredo this year. She would like to see the agency double the city’s allocation in 2016 pending the results of the point-in-time count next month.

Roby has spent much of the year cultivating ties with public officials and nonprofit groups to assist homeless veterans. Yet on the subject of the Plaza’s transitional program, she turned reticent.

“As a federal employee, I can’t comment on that,” she said.

Lopez, the center’s coordinator, long has criticized the overall performance of the VA’s Texas Valley Coastal Bend Health Care System, which has been plagued by delays at its seven outpatient facilities.

“When we try to solve problems, they act like we’re overstepping our boundaries,” he said. “But the VA doesn’t have the flexibility that you have in the private sector.”

The case of Javier Hernandez illuminated what can happen when a private group and a public agency find common cause.

The Air Force veteran, who grew up in Laredo, called Lopez this summer after he was laid off from his oil rig job in Midland and explained that he needed a place to stay. Lopez offered him a room at the hotel.

Two weeks later, the 25-year-old Hernandez contacted Roby, who provided him with a housing voucher to move into a two-bedroom apartment. He covers $166 of his $650 monthly rent with a portion of his GI Bill money, and in a few weeks he will begin classes at Laredo Community College in pursuit of a paramedic career.

Hernandez praised Lopez and Roby for extricating him from difficult circumstances. As for city and county officials, he delivered a simple message.

“If you really mean it when you say to veterans, ‘Thank you for your service,’ then don’t just say the words,” he said. “Do something.”

___

Information from: San Antonio Express-News, https://www.mysanantonio.com


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