SANTA CLARA — David Reiss keeps his Army discharge documents beneath the seat in his 2000 Ford Expedition. It’s as safe as anyplace because everything he and wife Billie own is in the SUV.
For much of the last five-and-a-half years, “home” has been a succession of vehicles, worsening his already poor health and leaving him to think that “I was going to die in the car.”
Last week David, 56, who is on dialysis, received a godsend: a veterans housing subsidy. But until they are able to find a landlord that will accept their voucher, which has been increasingly difficult in the tight local rental market, David remains part of an especially troubling segment of the local homeless population: those who served their country.
And it’s a problem throughout the Bay Area. In Santa Clara County alone, a survey last year found that nearly one in 10 homeless — 718 people — was a veteran.
“I imagine most people would be surprised by that number,” said Ky Le, the county’s director of the office of supportive housing. “But momentum is building in the community surrounding veteran homelessness. People are starting to ask: ‘Why aren’t we doing more to solve this?'”
Progress has been made. The federal government last week announced that the number of homeless vets has dropped by 33 percent over the past four years — to just under 50,000, largely due to a surge in resources. There’s currently about $1.9 billion in federal funding for homeless veterans.
“Maybe things were slower than they should have been before, but they are speeding up now,” said Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “There’s enough money to solve veteran homelessness.”
No one is throwing a parade yet. Vets still represent about 12 percent of the country’s unhoused population. While the latest survey has yet to reveal numbers for the region, last year’s national census found that California had, by far, the country’s most homeless vets with more than 15,000. In addition to Santa Clara, other Bay Area counties had disturbingly high numbers of unhoused veterans, including San Francisco (716), Alameda (492) and Santa Cruz (395).
“The government has put money where its mouth is,” said Alex McElree, a former homeless veteran on San Jose streets who founded Operation Dignity, which houses vets in the East Bay. “But now we’re running out of affordable housing and having a hard time convincing landlords to take people who often have bad records.”
As a group, veterans are more likely to be on the streets longer, have a more difficult time getting back into housing and are more reluctant to ask for help. They tend to be male, single and one-third were stationed in a war zone. Half served during the Vietnam era. Vets can have a difficult time transitioning back to civilian life and often are dealing with issues ranging from substance abuse to post-traumatic stress disorder to physical problems. A survey last year found that 69 percent are disabled, and it’s estimated that half of all homeless vets have histories with the legal system.
But even as the national numbers are declining, the cost of securing housing in the pricey Bay Area still makes it difficult for any homeless person to escape the streets here — and David and Billie are examples.
“There’s no way he should be living in his car with the extent of his health problems,” said Jennifer Loving, executive director of the nonprofit Destination: Home, who recently reconnected David with VA social services. “But we have so many veterans in this county slipping through the cracks. There’s not just one David out there, but hundreds and hundreds of them. If we really want to support the troops, we shouldn’t be waving a flag or wearing a sticker. We should be getting these people into housing.”
The Reisses’ case illustrates the complexity of homelessness. The couple is open about how their own missteps contributed to a deep hole they hope to be finally emerging from after years of struggles. But living in an SUV, they said, was not a choice but rather an act of desperation.
“People always wonder why we’ve been homeless for so long, like we could have done something,” said David, who is gaunt and speaks in a frail voice. “But we tried.”
David, who served three years in the military, and Billie both had worked in the tech industry in the Midwest. But after a surgery, David became addicted to prescription drugs, sending him into a downward spiral that included a jail stint for assault. Billie struggled with alcoholism and served time for forgery.
As they straightened out their lives — he conquered his addiction to pain-killers and she has been sober for six years — David’s health deteriorated. He long has dealt with cryoglobulinemia vasculitis, a blood disease associated with Hepatitis C that causes extreme pain below his knees and is worsened by cold temperatures.
They came to Silicon Valley for the milder weather and tech opportunities but arrived with the recession. With no jobs, they were unable to pay rent. Living in vehicles exacerbated his condition, which spread to organs and required surgery to remove 70 percent of his small intestine in 2010.
David also began standing on a street corner with a piece of cardboard that explained their dire straits.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” his written plea began.
Dr. Abigail Wilson, who treated David at the San Francisco VA Medical Center for several years, said she often stressed the need for him to get into housing and remains puzzled why it never happened.
“We always knew that was key because it’s almost impossible to treat someone out of a car with his condition,” Wilson said. “We want our vets housed, and we go to great lengths to make sure that happens.”
David said he was grateful that Wilson connected him with VA social workers. But any housing space available only was for him, and not Billie, they say.
Even after he began receiving disability, they couldn’t find a place to rent. They acquired the used Expedition so they each could have a row of seats to use as beds. It’s logged 200,000 miles and has mechanical problems. Earlier this year, someone tried to break in while they were sleeping. Three or four days a month, they stayed in a motel.
He has been in and out of the hospital so much in recent months that they even began parking the SUV overnight at Regional Medical Center of San Jose so they could get to the emergency room quicker.
But his health improved noticeably when they recently began staying in a motel through a Santa Clara County program. Meanwhile the Board of Supervisors recently approved the creation of a pilot program to further streamline the benefits process for homeless veterans.
“This is our lives,” said Billie, 41, who has become her husband’s full-time caregiver. “I wish things had happened differently, but we can’t change that. But maybe reading this will help somebody else’s life. I see people in the position we were in, and I want them to know that there is hope, even if it’s a long road.”
The voucher means they will have to pay only about 30 percent of disability toward rent, and they’ve begun looking for an apartment. But it’s taking an average of three months for voucher recipients to find housing in the hot rental market, the county’s Le said.
They hope living in the SUV soon will be in their rear-view mirror.
“Being indoors makes all the difference,” David said. “It’s amazing how good I feel after some time inside.”
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
NATIONAL AND SANTA CLARA COUNTY HOMELESS NUMBERS
Homeless in Santa Clara County: 7,631Homeless veterans in county: 718
Percentage of veterans who are unsheltered: 81 percent
Homeless nationally: 610,042
Homeless veterans nationally: 49,933
Veterans in county who receive housing vouchers: 635
Sources: 2013 Santa Clara County Point-in-Time Census & Survey, the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the 2014 Point-In-Time Count survey and Santa Clara County Housing Authority
DEMOGRAPHICS OF HOMELESS VETERANS
12 percent of the homeless adult population are veterans20 percent of the male homeless population are veterans
50 percent have serious mental illness
70 percent have substance-abuse problems
50 percent are age 51 or older
68 percent reside in cities
Source: National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
HOMELESS Veterans in the Bay Area
Santa Clara County: 718San Francisco County: 716
Alameda County: 492
Santa Cruz County: 395
San Mateo County: 245
Contra Costa County: 188
Source: The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress