In my introductory column, Mikey Simpson—a 57-year-old Camarillo veteran who’s been homeless for three years—told me he preferred to live outdoors because of his background as an Army infantryman.
But while I drove him to appointments at various VA medical centers, Simpson made it clear to me he wanted to receive a HUD-VASH voucher (HUD: Housing and Urban Development, VASH: Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing). VASH vouchers would pay 70 percent of his rent and provide a case manager to ensure he remains in his housing.
But there are many challenges in issuing VASH vouchers—especially in the Camarillo area.
One challenge is that Simpson insists on living in Camarillo, even though it would be easier to place him in Ventura or Oxnard.
Now, I know from personal experience that you may shrug and say, too bad, buddy, beggars can’t be choosers. Take a place wherever they give you one. That was certainly my first reaction. But spending time with Simpson gave me insights into his affinity for Camarillo.
He often reminisces about when he first moved to the city as a kid. The neighborhood he grew up in used to be surrounded by orchards. He has longtime connections at various businesses. He goes to movie night at the library. He knows all the shortcuts to his friends’ homes. He frequents various shopping centers, where he greets shoppers in a friendly and positive way. He is very much involved and engaged with Camarillo.
Telling Simpson to give all that up and go live in another city just because it is difficult to obtain a VASH voucher in Camarillo is, in my view, insensitive.
If he wants to live in Camarillo, doesn’t the VA have a responsibility to accommodate him? The additional $40 million in national funding for 2018 HUD-VASH vouchers is money earned through service to our country promised to Simpson and other veterans who are living on the streets and in their cars.
From my own experience as a homeless veteran and now as a volunteer helping other veterans find a home, I learned that the only way to look for housing in Ventura County is to first start out in Ventura or Los Angeles. Then when we receive a VASH voucher, we have to try and “port it” to other cities where we might want to live.
Although this is a roundabout way of doing things, it worked relatively well—until a key social worker went out on sick leave.
With this employee out and other social workers who help veterans in Ventura County spread too thin, there wasn’t much chance for a homeless veteran in the county, like Simpson, to apply for a voucher to live in a city of their choice, like Camarillo. And the last time I checked, there was a waiting list of approximately 40 county veterans awaiting a VASH voucher.
Frustrated that so much was relying on one social worker, I contacted a public affairs representative for the Veterans Affairs of Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System who works with veterans throughout Kern, Los Angeles, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
Great news: The VA Greater L.A. Healthcare System has hired two new social workers for the Oxnard/Ventura area for a total of four social workers. They also recently hired a supervisor (new position) specifically for the Oxnard, Ventura and Santa Barbara area. In addition, they are in the process of hiring housing locators to assist all area veterans with housing options.
Meanwhile, there is one formidable final obstacle to helping a deserving veteran like Simpson: finding a Camarillo property owner or property manager—perhaps a veteran—who will read or hear about Simpson’s situation and step up, go above and beyond the call of duty, and refuse to leave their fellow veteran behind.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This will not be easy. I am familiar with the stigmas, stereotypes and misconceptions revolving around the homeless—especially homeless veterans. But one of the positives about the VASH voucher program is how, beyond providing a rental subsidy, the program also connects veterans to a wide range of health and human services intended to empower them to remain in their permanent homes.
If you are or know of a property owner/manager in Camarillo who empathizes with the plight of veterans trying to get back on track, we ask that you contact Gold Coast Veterans Foundation for more information on how to partner with HUD to make one of your rentals available to a veteran.
There is a reason we don’t refer to Simpson as “houseless”— he is homeless. And Camarillo is his home, where he feels a sense of community, a sense of belonging and has a rich historical connection to his childhood.
Stoneman, a former Ventura County homeless veteran, now volunteers for the Camarillo-based Gold Coast Veterans Foundation nonprofit. For more information, visit gcvf.org.