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VA housing vouchers fizzle in hot SoCal rental market

The building manager's office was closed, but Veronica Schenkelberg and Adrian Carrillo decided to wait. 

All day, they'd been hitting buzzers and knocking on doors, looking for an apartment for Carrillo, and this building showed promise--it had an apartment available, and from what Carrillo could gather online, it took Section 8 housing vouchers.

After 35 minutes, Cindy Morrison arrived to unlock the door and deliver the same statement the two had been hearing all day--no, the building doesn't take federal rent assistance vouchers.

"Not even for veterans?" Carrillo asked.

"Not for anybody," Morrison said.

And so it goes in Los Angeles, which is home to one of the hottest rental markets in the country, and also the nation's largest population of homeless veterans. For those reasons, L.A. has become the kingpin of the Obama administration's pledge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015. 

And resources have been flowing in. Los Angeles received over 800 new Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers in 2015. And there are close to 4,000 active leases through VASH right now in the L.A. area.

In addition, the Veterans Affairs office in Los Angeles has received an additional infusion of $30 million for rapid rehousing programs.

It's the single biggest vet housing effort in the U.S.--yet it's not entirely smooth.

Veteran homelessness has remained essentially flat over the last two years, according to the latest homeless county. And while 3,000 VASH vouchers have been successfully used, another 700 remain on the streets, in the hands of people like Carrillo, who for all their efforts, cannot find a place to use them.

"If I would've known I was in this predicament, I would've never ever moved out here," Carrillo said. "I wake up to regret every single day."

Carrillo served six years in the U.S. Army, including a deployment to Afghanistan. After being discharged, he carved out a comfortable life in Fayetteville, just outside North Carolina’s massive Fort Bragg. A combination of medical conditions left him with a 100% service-connected medical disability, which pays him about $3,000 each month.

That was enough to rent a nice house he, his fiancé, and their 5-year-old daughter Adrea could live in. With his rent at $650 per month he had enough left over to save for his daughter’s future too.

Then, about a year ago, his mother, who lives in Whittier, underwent an emergency brain operation, and he needed to take care of her as she recovered.

Thus began Adrian Carrillo’s rough entry into Southern California’s rental housing market--and ultimately, homelessness.

"California is expensive," he said.

And VASH seemed like a lifesaver. 

The voucher, which is much like a federal Section 8 voucher, would pay a chunk of Carrillo's rent for him. To help him find a place that'd take it, the V.A. assigned him a caseworker.

That’s when he met Veronica Schenkelberg.

A licensed social worker, Schenkelberg walked Carrillo through the services available to him: medical care, counseling, job training, and job placement assistance. He was approved for a 2-bedroom apartment and handed a voucher worth about $1,700.

"We do lease-up the veterans," Schenkelberg said. "It takes a little longer because the market is so tight, but we do. We do find housing eventually. It just takes a little bit of time."

Part of her job is selling landlords on the program. But Section 8, an anti-poverty program, has a stigma in the landlord community, said Charles Lazar, who owns five apartment buildings in Los Angeles.

He used to accept Section 8 tenants but stopped doing so long ago. He feels that some vets may create problems for his other tenants.

"What happens if someone does have mental issues that aren’t being addressed?" he said. "When you have someone screaming in the middle of the night and you’ve got people waking up and kids that are small and they are scared, then you have to deal with it. What are you going to do?"

VASH vouchers come with supportive services and a case worker. Each vet also have a support network tasked with responding to issues around the clock.

Ed Cabrera, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said he encounters Lazar's argument a lot. 

"There are a lot of stereotypes out there that affect veterans who’ve returned from combat or current theaters, he said. " So a lot of education needs to happen."

For Carrillo, landlord education won't come soon enough.

Walking away from his fourth apartment complex of the day, he looked worn out. 

The landlord there told Carrillo he did indeed have an apartment available--a 2-bedroom, which at $1,600 per month was well within the dollar value of Carrillo’s voucher--but he wasn't interested in the voucher program. 

 "Man, it just tears you up," Carrillo said. 

Being homeless was clearly taking its toll.

"If it was just me and Lori, that’s one thing," Carrillo said, referring to his fiancee. "We can hang in there. But it’s very very painful when your daughter wakes up crying and she says ‘this is not our house, Daddy. I want to go back to North Carolina. I want to go back to the old house.’"

Getting back into his car, Carrillo said he thought he was done looking at this point. That it's time to leave Southern California and his impossible situation, and head to Texas, where the family just might be able to find an affordable, decent home.