SF Gate – Brett Smith’s buddies don’t visit him in his new apartment, three blocks from Ocean Beach and a world away from his old stomping grounds in the Tenderloin. And Smith couldn’t be more pleased about the solitude.
“If they come out here, they have to really want to come out here,” he said. “Trouble cannot walk up on me.”
Smith is a 54-year-old Army veteran whose failing eyesight and migraines meant he had to give up his job as a limousine driver. He was homeless and struggling with substance abuse before scoring a coveted federal housing voucher for homeless veterans in April.
But turning a housing voucher into a real apartment can be next to impossible for homeless veterans in San Francisco, where a scorching market sent rents up 15.8 percent in the first quarter of this year compared with the same time last year. The average apartment in the city rents for $2,663 – a record, according to RealFacts, a company that compiles rent data.
A homeless vet like Smith usually can’t compete with young tech workers who are snappily dressed, can chat up a landlord with ease, have good credit scores and who can quickly come up with a security deposit.
That’s where a new City Hall campaign comes in. Mayor Ed Lee on Thursday will announce the “100 Days” campaign, which aims to house the 50 homeless veterans in San Francisco who have federal vouchers but haven’t been able to persuade landlords to rent to them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs in March awarded the city $2.7 million, representing another 200 vouchers that are being disbursed, including the one that went to Smith. City officials from the Human Services Agency, the Housing Authority and other agencies recently traveled to San Diego to learn how to get vets housed quickly.
The Housing Authority has pledged to inspect apartments offered to vets with vouchers, which is required by the program, within 48 hours. The allowable rent has been increased to $1,612 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment, plus 30 percent of the veteran’s monthly pension or welfare check. But mostly, the campaign is geared toward convincing private landlords to consider veterans.
“The president’s goal is to end veterans’ homelessness over the next five years,” said Bevan Dufty, Lee’s point person on homelessness. “We can’t do it without the active participation of small and large property owners. It’s one of the most patriotic things someone can do, honoring a veteran by helping to house them.”
The Hotel Council, Philanthropy by Design and The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing fund are also helping to provide old furniture and housewares and money for security deposits.
San Francisco, one of 16 cities in the country chosen to pioneer the new campaign, has nearly 2,000 homeless veterans, according to Swords to Plowshares, an organization that works with them. But the vouchers are intended for those who’ve been chronically homeless and are the most needy because they are women, have children, are elderly or because they have medical or mental health problems.
Wayne Proctor is just 23 but has already lived the hard life of a homeless veteran. The Nevada native served in the Army from 2007 to 2009 and moved to San Francisco in 2010 in hopes of finding a technology job. He didn’t – and slept on a succession of friends’ couches before securing a housing voucher last year.
“I busted my buns and called a bunch of places,” he said, noting most landlords turned him down upon hearing he was a homeless vet with a voucher. “They think you might get someone who’s rowdy, keeps people up, an alcoholic maybe. They just seemed disinterested.”
He eventually secured a studio apartment on the border of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill.
He’s enrolled in City Build, an apprenticeship program, with the hopes of becoming an ironworker or laborer. If his income eventually exceeds $39,000 a year, he won’t qualify for the voucher anymore and will be expected to pay his own rent.
The voucher program comes with a case manager to help the vet get back on his feet and deal with any concerns from the landlords.
Smith, the vet with an apartment at Ocean Beach, speaks glowingly of his case manager, Hilary Berman, a social worker with the voucher program. She works with 33 homeless vets, including one who lived in city parks since returning from the Vietnam War and only just got permanent housing.
She said one veteran housed through the program is getting married. Another is going to school. Another just got a job with a catering service and worked last weekend’s Black and White Ball.
Bartley Faherty is the landlord who housed Smith in a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, living room and bathroom. He’s housed several veterans through the program.
“A lot of these landlords are not willing because they don’t have the security deposit the next day,” he said. “I don’t mind waiting a week or two or three for someone who fought for our country.”
Smith turned down available apartments in the Tenderloin and Bayview – and is glad he did. He takes regular walks on the beach, and he has a bed, a chair, a rug and a television set.
“I have everything I want,” he said. “I look out my bedroom window to the right, and I can see the ocean. And I can hear it at night.”
For more information or to donate, visit www.sfhomesforheroes.org.