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Robert Ciano’s hip is in bad shape. He’s been trying to ignore it for years, but it’s at the point where he needs replacement surgery.
But, for now, the 57-year-old Navy veteran is sitting at Starbucks near the former site of Naval Air Station Barbers Point, where he was stationed as an electronics technician from 1976 to 1982, and recounting his life since his Navy days. If his ailing hip is bothering him, he doesn’t show it.
Ciano spent the better part of the past decade living out of his beige Chevy Blazer. For a long stretch, he managed to string together a series of small engineering jobs that earned him enough to eat and put gas in his SUV. It was a hand-to-mouth existence, but he got by. His hip troubles, for the most part, remained an afterthought.
But the pain worsened gradually. It eventually became so much that he had to turn down most contract jobs that came his way. To make things worse, around Christmas, his car was broken into, and all of his tools were stolen.
Ciano knew then that it was the time for him to leave his homeless life behind and trade it in for a new one — one with permanent housing.
But that’s easier said than done.
According to the latest figures, based on a January 2014 “point in time” count, the number of homeless veterans in Hawaii has steadily increased during the past five years — from 411 in 2010 to 593 in 2014.
That’s in part because the main federal program aimed at helping veterans like Ciano isn’t finding traction in Hawaii’s tight rental housing market.
Ciano is, in many ways, the face of veteran homelessness that President Barack Obama has vowed to eliminate by the end of 2015, a goal that became his administration’s policy in 2010.
With the deadline looming, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is counting on the success of a program called HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing to move veterans like Ciano into housing. Run in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it combines rental assistance in the form of Section 8 vouchers — which require recipients to contribute only 30 percent of what they receive from Social Security and elsewhere — with case management and clinical services provided by the VA.
The program is designed around a guiding concept known as “Housing First,” an idea developed first in New York during the 1990s to fight homelessness and adopted by the VA several years ago. The thinking behind the concept is disarmingly simple: Get homeless people — including veterans — off the streets and put a roof over their heads first and then deal with their other issues.
But what’s simple in concept has proven difficult to put into practice in Hawaii.
According to the Hawaii Department of Human Services, the number of homeless veterans stands at more than 590 statewide — an increase of nearly 45 percent from 2010. By contrast, the number of homeless veterans has declined by 33 percent nationwide during the same period.
The reason behind Hawaii’s conundrum is complex, but one stumbling block is clear: The fair market rent in the Honolulu metro area, priced at $1,374 a month for a one-bedroom, is more than what the voucher’s maximum amount can cover — about $1,200.
Besides high rent, the HUD-VASH program has to overcome resistance from private landlords and realtors, who are reluctant to accept the very people the program is designed to help — the most vulnerable, most needy and chronically homeless veterans.
And the fact that the program is tied to Section 8, whose recipients have long faced discrimination nationwide, has not helped. As Civil Beat recently reported, apartment listings on sites like Craigslist in Hawaii are rife with posts discouraging prospective Section 8 tenants.
Ciano’s recent experience is illustrative. With the VA’s help, he was accepted into the HUD-VASH program in February — but he’s still stuck at a temporary housing facility for homeless veterans, unable to use his voucher.
Ciano is not alone: 60 other homeless veterans are now caught in the same situation, according to Andrew Dahlburg, manager of the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System’s healthcare for homeless veterans program.
Dahlburg says it’s typical for Hawaii’s HUD-VASH recipients to spend three months or longer before finding a landlord willing to accept the voucher. Often, he says, they run into landlords who are fearful of encountering homeless veterans suffering from alcohol and substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorders, and other mental health issues.
“We have made attempts to work with private landlords and realtors, but I think there are stereotypes that come with trying homeless veterans,” Dahlburg said.
To counter such stereotypes, Dahlburg and his colleagues are ramping up their outreach efforts, letting landlords know that the VA has a support system in place to deal with any problem they may encounter.
Bob Shank, the housing specialist for the HUD-VASH program in Hawaii, is the VA’s point man in this effort. He takes a hands-on approach and tries to establish relationships with potential landlords himself.
“Housing is about relationships and trust, so I try to be very proactive and responsive to what their needs are,” Shank said. “At the end of the day, this is a partnership: They need to fill their units, and we have veterans we need to house.”
Shank says he also appeals to landlords’ sense of obligation. “These are folks who were out there in the uniform defending our country. But, for a variety of reasons, they ended up being homeless, and we’re now looking to the community to help them,” he said.
But, if the history of Section 8 vouchers is any indication, the HUD-VASH program will continue to face an uphill battle in winning cooperation from landlords.
“I got up and looked for it. I didn’t wait for people to find the place for me.” — Once-homeless vet Robert Ciano
Studies have long shown that discrimination against voucher holders is commonplace — in part because they are not a protected group under the federal Fair Housing Act, and landlords in most states are free to reject them solely for using a voucher.
Last year, for instance, a report by the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law found that landlords who were already renting to other voucher holders discriminated against prospective tenants with vouchers 59 percent of the time. Examples of discrimination included landlords presenting different or more limited options — or outright refusing to rent.
To guard against such discrimination, 13 states and 38 municipalities across the country have enacted statutes that establish “source of income” housing protections, according to the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
In Hawaii, the Legislature took up House Bill 25 this year to do exactly that, but the bill stumbled in committee. A similar measure also failed last year.
Marcia Rosen, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, says these protections are important, but they aren’t a cure-all.
An appeals court in California, for instance, ruled that the protections under the state’s “source of income” statue do not cover voucher holders.
And the study in Chicago suggests that such statute can be effective only if prospective tenants know about it, and that there’s a mechanism in place to enforce it. Chicago, after all, bans discrimination based on a renter’s source of income — including vouchers.
Still, Rosen says, these statues “can act as a disincentive at least for landlords to blatantly discriminate. Now, they can’t advertise, ‘No Catholics’ or ‘No black people,’ but, in most places, they can still say, ‘No Section 8.’”
For his part, Ciano says HUD-VASH recipients like him may face high hurdles in finding a new apartment, but they aren’t insurmountable.
After weeks of searching, Ciano managed to find a new building in Pearl City that accepts the HUD-VASH voucher. Within the next two or three weeks, he hopes, the HUD’s inspectors will sign off on the property’s condition, and he’ll be able to move in.
“It’s doable, but everybody who wants an apartment has to really want it,” Ciano said. “I got up and looked for it. I didn’t wait for people to find the place for me.”