Affordable housing becomes another hurdle for already burdened veterans in North Texas
Homelessness and housing instability are persistent problems for veterans nationwide. High housing costs in North Texas are hurting even those who were doing fine a few months ago, advocates say.
In December, Jefferi Weller became homeless for the first time in his life.
Rent outpaced his and his elderly mother’s Social Security income, he said, and he didn’t have the money for a deposit on a new place.
“I've found so many roadblocks on just trying to navigate what I used to consider normal,” Weller said.
That's what brought Weller to the American GI Forum’s Dallas office in July. The agency was holding a jobs and housing fair. About half a dozen veterans sat in the waiting room, filling out forms and waiting their turn to meet with case managers and potential employers.
Most of them, including Weller, said they were living in shelters. Finding a place to live – one that he could stay in long-term – was at the top of Weller’s priority list.
“The average apartment now is $1,200 a month for a single bedroom, and for my Social Security allotment, that's over half my check,” Weller said. “I got to eat and take care of the bills that I do currently have, and I'm just not able to do both at the same time."
Housing prices are getting more and more expensive in North Texas and around the state, squeezing renters and buyers alike. That puts a particular burden on veterans, who often come out of the military with little preparation or support for civilian life's challenges, advocates say. Searching for a home, on top of problems like physical injury and mental illness, can seem insurmountable to a group of people accustomed to clarity and structure in their daily lives.
'Hey, my landlord raised my rent’
President Joe Biden visited Fort Worth in March to promote one of his administration’s main priorities: improving veterans’ healthcare.
"We only have one truly sacred obligation, and I mean this — sacred obligation,” Biden told the crowd. “And that is to train and equip those who we send into harm’s way and care for them and their families when they come home.”
Local advocates said they were glad to see the president paying attention to the issue, but the biggest problem facing North Texas veterans is housing.
That’s why the American GI Forum takes a “housing first” approach, said Demetria Fields, a housing coordinator with the agency. Get veterans housed, and then tackle other problems, like PTSD or a physical disability.
"Thinking about those things in addition to where I'm going to lay my head? That can be completely overwhelming," Fields said.
Finding a place to stay is harder now, in terms of cost.
Dallas rents in July were 16% more expensive than they were at the same time last year, according to the rental listing company Apartment List.
“The city's rents have been increasing for 20 straight months - the last time rents declined was in November 2020,” the report states.
The median rent in Dallas is $1,243 for a one-bedroom and $1,485 for a two-bedroom, according to Apartment List.
Fort Worth wasn’t much cheaper. The median rent is $1,170 for a one-bedroom and $1,350 for a two-bedroom. Year-over-year, rents in the city are 13.6% more expensive than the same time in 2021.
Those increases are pricing out veterans who might have had stable housing last year, said Kamiel Morgan, a network manager for the Texas Veterans Network with United Way of Tarrant County.
“We're getting veterans calling and saying, ‘Hey, my landlord raised my rent, and I wasn't ready,’ and it's $400 or $500 differences," Morgan said.
The Texas Veterans Network is a clearinghouse for veterans’ services across Texas. If a veteran calls looking for help, Morgan’s team can direct them to more than 200 veteran-serving organizations statewide.
Morgan works closely with Megan Heil, the North Texas Regional Manager for Combined Arms, the nonprofit that runs the Texas Veterans Network. There are some serious gaps in the housing help available, Heil said.
There are federal housing programs for veterans, but they have eligibility requirements – like being at a certain poverty level — that not all veterans meet. That leaves some veterans trying, and failing, to find housing they can afford in the open market.
“The poverty guidelines didn't change overnight [when] the rent went up,” Heil said.
For those who do get housing vouchers, some landlords won’t accept them, Heil said. A 2018 Urban Institute study found that 78% of Fort Worth landlords refused to accept vouchers, and their right to refuse is protected under Texas state law.
Landlords may also be hesitant to rent to a veteran with an eviction or an owed balance on their record.
"Who’s going to accept them?” Heil said. “Sometimes a landlord will say, okay, I'll take them, but there's a high-risk fee, on top of a deposit, on top of first and last month's rent. Well, they don't have $5,000 saved up to put down on a one-bedroom apartment."
Why are veterans at higher risk for homelessness?
Maintaining stable housing is a persistent problem for veterans, and the reasons why have been a subject of study for decades.
On a single night in January 2020, there were 37,252 veterans experiencing homelessness in the U.S., making up about 8% of the total homeless population, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report.
However, that population is much smaller than it was 11 years before. Veteran homelessness dropped nearly 50% from 2009 to 2020, the report states.
That decline is thanks to an Obama-era initiative to end veteran homelessness, said Dr. Katherine Koh, who researches homelessness while working as a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program.
Despite the improvements, she still sees progress yet to be made.
"The veterans’ homeless population is still high, and veterans are still overrepresented in the homeless population," Koh said.
Koh is a street psychiatrist, meaning she goes "under bridges and [in] alleyways” in Boston, finding people who need help and offering mental health services. Among her patients are veterans who she said did not receive the support they needed after coming back to civilian life.
“I think it's a tragedy that soldiers leave home to honorably serve our country and yet often come back with no home to return to," she said.
Veterans are particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless, Koh said.
Combat and trauma during service increases risk for development of mental illness, which contributes to the risk of homelessness, Koh said. So does insufficient access to housing and support services after leaving the military. Even life before the military can contribute, she said.
"People who joined the Army are more likely already to have risk factors that make them predisposed to homelessness, [like] higher rates of mental illness and substance use and low-income related factors,” Koh said.
Koh is interested in finding ways to prevent people from becoming homeless, so she worked on a study that tried to pinpoint what veterans who experience homelessness have in common.
The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on April 14, looked at data collected from more than 15,000 U.S. Army soldiers, and built a model to predict who might experience homelessness later in life.
Out of almost 2,000 variables, the study found that the three biggest predictors of future homelessness were major depressive disorder, PTSD, and the trauma of having a loved one murdered.
“Our study confirmed the link between mental illness, trauma and homelessness with a large and robust dataset, and also demonstrated that homelessness can be predicted with a high degree of accuracy,” Koh said.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense is funding Koh’s research, she said, and she hopes the military will be able to use her model to identify servicemembers who may be particularly vulnerable to losing their homes. That way, the military can get them connected with case managers before they leave for civilian life.
"Just in general, transitions are difficult for people psychologically. That tends to be when people have changes in mood and changes in anxiety,” Koh said. “Even just moving from one town to the other or starting at a new school, any kind of transition can create a period of instability for people.”
Fixing the transition
Improving the transition out of the military could help prevent veterans from becoming homeless in the future, advocates and researchers agree.
Right now, the military offers the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, to the approximately 200,000 servicemembers who leave the military each year. The program includes workshops about employment and career-building in civilian life.
But Megan Heil, the North Texas regional manager with Combined Arms, said the quality of instruction, and the information people get, is inconsistent.
"Active-duty service members get put through months of training to learn how to be the best active-duty service member and know their role and know their job,” she said. “However, when it's time to get out, it is 'Thank you for your service.’”
Kamiel Morgan agreed about the need for more preparation. She and her husband joined the military young, around 20 years old, she said. That was her whole life until a few years ago, and she had to figure out childcare, schools and a host of things she never had to worry about when they were in the military.
“It’s a different world,” she said.
Back at the American GI Forum, Fatima, who asked to go by her first name only, wasn’t there for the jobs and housing fair. She’d already been working with the American GI Forum for about two months, and she was about to be placed in an apartment in Mesquite, where she looked forward to spending time with her grandkids.
When she got out of the Army in 2000, she wished she had more help with her transition into civilian life, she said, but that wasn’t her problem finding good housing now.
“It's the price. That's the main problem I've had,” Fatima said. “Actually, that's the only problem I've had, is the price of it."
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