BARSTOW — Veterans may lose the bridge that connects them from living on the streets to permanent housing on Sept. 30 and a Desert Manna official warns San Bernardino County officials that the homeless problem is not solved.
"You are going to continue to have homeless veterans. It's going to continue to be an issue," Desert Manna President and CEO Darrin Fikstad said Wednesday. "The problem is not solved and dropping the funding of this is going to build up the situation."
The funding Fikstad was referring to involves a U.S. Vets program funded by the Veterans Administration that provided transitional housing to military veterans until permanent housing could be secured. Eddie Estrada with U.S. Vets confirmed on Tuesday that Funding for that program ends on Sept. 30, which will shut down the program.
Estrada said there are 19 veterans in transitional housing in Barstow and he said all of them will remain in housing after Sept. 30. But he said the program will be unable to take in any new homeless veterans.
It was just last January that Estrada went before the Barstow City Council to announce that U.S. Vets would be housing 30 veterans from throughout the county in an apartment complex on East Virginia Way in Barstow.
"This program is actually what you would call bridge housing," Estrada said. "They are either just off the streets, they were evicted or they just got out of the military and they are waiting for their apartment to be ready. So they come to our facility."
Desert Manna was one of the organizations in the county that secured transitional housing assistance for homeless veterans that came through its doors.
Ashley Schapitl, a spokeswoman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, also confirmed the funding for the U.S. Vets program was expiring this month.
"It’s the end of the fiscal year. The Senate is working to pass what’s referred to as a 'continuing resolution' next week to fund the government," she said.
Spokesman Michael Fresquez said U.S. Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, was also aware of the funding issue.
“Our office is working with the VA, and the Housing Authority of San Bernardino County to explore our options and ensure that none of the veterans impacted will be displaced," Fresquez said. "Even though this particular program appears to be ending, the county still receives significant federal funding from HUD to help house veterans and that funding continues to increase.”
On Friday, Third District Supervisor James Ramos said his office has been reaching out to federal and county officials ever since the Desert Dispatch informed him of the situation last week.
"This definitely is a big concern for San Bernardino County," Ramos said. "After it was brought to our attention, we reached out to San Bernardino County Veterans Affairs. We ended up calling Washington, D.C. to get more information. We are working on a solution with the county Housing Authority and our county Veterans Affairs to come up with a way for that housing funding to stay in place."
The county has specifically set out to end veteran homelessness by the end of this year, building upon an aggressive housing strategy that surpassed its goal last year when officials found housing for more than 500 veterans.
Just over 8 percent of the unsheltered homeless in the 2016 Point-in-Time Homeless Count conducted in late January were identified as veterans.
“Although this program is coming to an end in Barstow, there is no doubt that we will find housing for all of these veterans," First District Supervisor Robert Lovingood said. "The Housing Authority of San Bernardino County, in partnership with U.S. Vets and other partners, have been making arrangements that ensure all of these vets have permanent housing. Last year, San Bernardino County reached our goal of ending veteran homelessness in this county. And I am committed to maintaining our record of success.”
While he applauds the county's efforts to end homeless among the veterans, Fikstad said it's "not mission accomplished." He said Desert Manna continues to see two to four homeless veterans a month seeking shelter and assistance.
"It's the old political two-step or the Washington shuffle," he said. "There is a false belief that because 500 homeless veterans have been housed that there are no more homeless."
He points out that half of the veterans who get off the streets with federal or county assistance eventually are back on the streets. He blames the high recidivism rate to mental health issues and substance abuse issues.
"Again, we are just throwing a band-aid on the issue. We are covering up the wound. We stitched it up and say, you are OK. Well, you are not OK because there has to be follow-up."
Lovingood, however, argues the county is making significant progress to end veteran homelessness.
"We understand that new veterans may fall into homelessness as we house other veterans," he said. "The goal and focus of the county is to have effective systems, services and housing resources in place to quickly identify the homeless veteran, bridge them into emergency housing and quickly transition them into permanent housing with supportive services to ensure ongoing housing stabilization.
"In this area the county has been extremely successful and continues to work within its own departments and with other dedicated agencies to enhance service provision and increase housing resources to ensure we can meet the housing needs of homeless veterans quickly and effectively."
Lovingood also said housing has to come first before outreach to combat mental illness issues and substance abuse can be effective.
"The county's public and nonprofit veterans housing providers follow a Housing First principle, which is 'low barrier' and has no requirements of sobriety to either enter or remain in housing. This is a national best practice model in addressing homelessness; housing first, wrap around services focusing on stabilization and health care resources to meet the needs of the individual regardless of their mental health or substance abuse concerns at entry. With housing coming first, all of those other outcomes become more successful. "