Homeless Veterans: Is This the Solution?

The Brooklyn Ink
Oct 25, 2018 · 14 min read

A supportive housing project in Coney Island offers hope

By Sara Ohlms

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Surf Vets Place under construction. Photo by Sara Ohlms

Rising above the famous Coney Island Boardwalk, a nine-story tower nears completion. In the shadow of the Parachute Jump, the New York City landmark, this is Surf Vets Place. In a neighborhood weary of development and wary of developers, the people of Coney Island have only positive things to say about it. This is because of the tenants who will eventually live here.

With 135 units, Surf Vets Place has 82 apartments that will soon become home for homeless veterans. These veterans will pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent. If they can’t pay, they can still stay. I wanted to know how it was possible to build a $65 million building without a single market rate unit in it. Somebody has to be paying for it, and I wanted to find out who — and why.

Phase One of Surf Vets Place is a nine-story building with 135 units and ground floor retail space. Of the 135 units, 82 will be reserved for homeless veterans, with the other 53 being affordable housing. The building will include a courtyard, a fitness center, bike storage, laundry facilities, and a rooftop terrace. The veterans who live there will receive supportive services — from job training to transportation to medical and mental health services — provided on site. Tentative plans also include a bakery that will be run by the homeless veterans that live there. The goal isn’t only to house them, but to find them employment as well. Originally scheduled for completion in May of 2018, work to raise Surf Avenue has delayed the project into 2019.

The idea of supportive housing — permanent affordable housing with on-site social services for the tenants — is picking up steam. The tenants include the mentally ill, the disabled, the elderly, the chronically ill, those battling substance abuse disorders, homeless veterans, as well homeless people in general. The rent is generally no more than 30 percent of income, there is no time limit, and there are no qualifications to meet. Sobriety is not a requirement.

This idea springs from the Housing First model, which is now being used systemwide by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. This model has led to housing retention rates at almost double those of individuals in the Treatment First programs, with increased health outcomes for the participants, and a cost savings to the government, according to a 2016 study in the Columbia Social Work Review.

Surf Vets Place is a partnership between the Concern for Independent Living, and Georgica Green Ventures. Concern for Independent Living is, according to its website, “a non-profit agency committed to helping individuals and families to live in the community with dignity and enhanced opportunities through the provision of housing and support services.” Founded in 1972, Concern has grown to become a highly awarded developer of affordable and supportive housing.

Based in Long Island, Concern has built hundreds of units in the New York City area. The most recent development, a 123-unit development in Long Island that opened in October of 2017, set aside 50 units for homeless individuals with disabilities, with the rest being affordable housing. In June 2016, Brooklyn saw the opening of Concern Bergen in Crown Heights. This unit has a mix of supportive and affordable units. Of the 90 units, 55 are reserved for adults with psychiatric disabilities, and 35 are affordable housing. While they don’t exclusively serve veterans, many of their recent units do.

The funding for Surf Vets Place comes from many different sources, both city and state. But the main source of income for supportive housing comes from the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, or LIHTC. Almost $25 million for Surf Vets Place will come from this program.

In its most basic terms, the program operates by giving federal tax credits to non-profits in exchange for money used to build affordable housing, as explained in this video:

The only entity losing money in this situation is the federal government, in the taxes that will not be paid. A 2018 report estimates that this lost tax revenue is an average of $9 billion per year.

Other sources of funding for Surf Vets Place are the Office of Mental Health, Housing Preservation and Development Supportive Housing Loan Program, Community Investment Fund, the Homeless Housing Assistance Program, and tax exempt bonds, making up the rest of the $67 million dollar development.

In New York City, despite efforts to combat it, homelessness has only increased. In 1994, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office, 24,000 people lived in shelters. When Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, it was up to 31,000. Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014 with a shelter population of 51,500, which has risen to more than 60,000 under his watch. With the cost of shelters and services for the homeless in New York City rising to $1.8 billion, the solution to the problem of homelessness has proven elusive.

There are many different factors leading to homelessness, but one of the biggest in New York City is the lack of affordable housing. Between 2005 and 2015, incomes increased by 5 percent, but rents rose by 18 percent. The stock of affordable housing has been shrinking for years. A report by the New York City Comptroller found that the city lost more than 425,000 affordable apartments between 2005 and 2017. The stock of rent-regulated apartments is shrinking, mostly due to the loss of rent stabilized units, expired tax breaks, and condo and co-op conversions. With a vacancy rate in the city of only 3.63 percent, about half the national average, finding an affordable apartment has been impossible for many.

New York City has struggled to find shelter for the thousands of homeless, and they have come up with some controversial solutions. One method of housing the homeless is to put them in hotel rooms, rented at the city’s expense. As a result of a 1981 lawsuit, New York City has a policy called the “right to shelter.” As the city explains, “New York City provides temporary emergency shelter to every man, woman, and child who is eligible for services, every night.”

A May 2018 LA Times report describes a couple that the city has housed in the Chelsea Holiday Inn for about a year. Because they are living in a standard hotel room without a kitchen, they have food delivered by a non-profit. The cost to house them is $7,716.10 per month. The average rent for an apartment in Manhattan is $3,667, meaning that the city could have rented two apartments for the price of this hotel room, with almost $400 left over every month. In March of this year, Politico reported that the city is projected to spend $364 million dollars each year on hotels for the homeless. In 2017, the city housed 11,000 people in hotels, at a cost of about $530,000 per day.

This number is expected to rise due to the closure of substandard “cluster sites” — private apartments rented by the city in far-flung sections of the city. A 2015 inspection of these cluster sites conducted by the city’s Department of Investigation found that these apartments were dirty, infested, and dangerous, with rodent and bug infestations, non-functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, blocked passageways, and locked exits. One building had a stairwell that was so rusted and broken that there was only one stairwell left as an escape route for 140 families. The Department of Buildings and FDNY considered ordering the building immediately vacated, but as a compromise, the DHS provided “fire guards,” people paid to block the stairwell and direct traffic in case of a fire. These guards were there 24 hours a day while the stairwell was repaired. The cost to DHS for the almost five months came to $637,258.34.

The investigation also found that the government was paying rent that was more than double that of other buildings in the same neighborhood. In 2016, two children were killed by a malfunctioning radiator in a cluster apartment. Now with Mayor de Blasio’s plan to close all of these cluster sites, the money spent on housing the homeless in hotels is expected to almost double.

Even with the overall rise of homeless people in New York City, one population has seen a massive drop in homelessness — veterans. Historically, the veteran community has been over-represented in the homeless population, due to a variety of factors. A 2009 study found that veterans, who made up less than 8 percent of the adult population, made up 16 percent of the homeless population.

But also in 2009, the Obama administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) set a goal of eliminating veteran homelessness by 2015. The federal government created or expanded programs to assist veterans in finding and maintaining housing. In 2011, the VA pledged $800 million to the effort, in a program called the Homeless Veteran Initiative.

One of the most effective programs has been the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing, or HUD-VASH program. This program, a partnership between the VA and HUD, distributes Section 8 vouchers, paired with supportive services provided by the VA, to homeless veterans. The vouchers can be project-based or tenant-based. Since 2008, approximately 144,000 veterans have been helped by the program.

While the effort to end veteran homelessness by 2015 was ultimately unsuccessful, it did reduce it by 36 percent nationwide by the end of that year, and up to 45 percent by the end of 2017, with some communities being far more successful than others. As of August of this year, three states and 66 communities, including Long Island, had announced that they had ended veteran homelessness.

While some question the counting method, HUD found that the state of New York had an 80 percent decrease in homeless veterans as of the last day of 2015. In that year alone, more than 1,000 veterans in New York were permanently housed, many of them in permanent supportive housing units just like Surf Vets Place. The 2017 HUD census found that there are just 535 homeless veterans in New York City. In 2009, there had been 3,689. The homeless veteran population of New York City is only 15 percent of what it was in 2009, while the general homeless population has increased by 55 percent.

While the homeless population of New York City has risen, the homeless population across the nation as a whole has been decreasing, a drop of about 15 percent across all groups. There are many reasons for this, but one reason is an increased priority on building permanent supportive housing.

And while it seems counter-intuitive, supportive housing is a cost-saving measure. The U.S. government funds supportive housing because the cost of housing homeless people in supportive housing is offset by the amount of money that is saved from the reduced use of social services.

As is widely reported in stories about supportive housing, many studies even show supportive housing saving the government substantial amounts of money. One reason: homeless people go to the emergency room three times more often than the general population, and are hospitalized four times more often. The care that they receive is insufficient, due to the lack of a primary care doctor and no continuity of care. Homeless people are also disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system. All of this costs money.

A 2012 study by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council found that 54 percent of homeless people had spent time in a correctional facility at some point. A 2006 article in The New Yorker found that a single homeless man in Nevada, who happened to be a veteran, cost the state around $100,000 per year in ambulance rides, emergency room visits, hospitalization, and incarceration. Over ten years, his cost to the taxpayers reached an estimated $1 million dollars. The median price for a home in Reno Nevada hit an all time high this year at $400,000.

I decided to examine the research into the cost savings of supportive housing. Offhand, it seemed too good to be true. One study, by the nonprofit Community Solutions, reported that the government was saving $1.3 billion dollars each year because of supportive housing. The question that I wanted to answer was: Could such numbers be true?

Dennis Culhane, a Senior Fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, published a 2008 study called The Costs of Homelessness: A Perspective from the United States. In this study, Culhane analyzes the various studies that concluded that supportive housing saves money. He concluded that the studies were flawed, mostly due to a lack of a control group, a small sample size, or because they had essentially “cherry-picked” the subjects for their high costs. He also points out that some cost savings that are commonly cited, such as prison costs, may be overstated. He adds that the cost of operating a prison is static, so moving a person into supportive housing may prevent them from being jailed, but that doesn’t mean that there is a cost savings there. The prison costs what it costs, regardless of who is there.

Culhane cites a 2002 study — this one by three professors from the University of Pennsylvania — that showed that the savings on services and the cost of supportive housing were “nearly a break-even proposition.” Even without showing the savings that others claim, this study was cited in the 2003 federal budget, in which the Bush administration increased funding for supportive housing. The study was also cited by New York City Mayor Bloomberg in 2004 upon announcing an initiative to develop 12,000 supportive housing units over the next five years. Culhane cautions against overly optimistic statements concerning the cost benefits of supportive housing, not because individual studies aren’t true, but because policy makers might discontinue to support supportive housing if the results are not as promised.

He in no way suggests that the studies should be disregarded. Instead, he maintains that many of the benefits of supportive housing would not be measurable in a cost analysis. You cannot place a monetary value on a person’s quality of life in a stable home versus on the streets, he says. Even if the cost savings to society are not as substantial as some would suggest, the benefits to those who are housed is immeasurable.

And even the most critical interpretation found that the costs generally evened out.

I found no evidence that in any way suggests that supportive housing is the more expensive option. So while the evidence doesn’t prove that supportive housing saves money, once the intangible benefits to the formerly homeless individuals are taken into account, it is clear that supportive housing is the better option for all involved — even if it isn’t the huge savings that some would suggest.

Ralph Fasano, Concern for Independent Living’s executive director, has more than 30 years of experience in affordable housing. with 25 years of experience with Concern. Fasano is an expert in housing the homeless. “Permanent supportive housing,” he said, “is the solution to homelessness.”

New York City, meanwhile, is at least in part going a different route — trying to build 90 shelters in five years. “Shelters are necessary, but it’s only a temporary solution,” Fasano said. He added that the biggest obstacle in the effort to build supportive housing was the lack of affordable land.

As to ending veteran homelessness, Fasano added, “We see it as a very worthy goal.” It also helps that the federal government has made it a priority, allocating millions of dollars to programs like the HUD-VASH voucher. Fasano noted that this program makes it easier to build housing, because the vouchers will enable the veterans to pay market rate for their apartments. The initiative to house homeless veterans has made it possible to have the great success that they have seen.

I visited Concern’s Liberty Village development in Amityville Long Island to see what it looked like four years after it was opened. It was pristine. Beautiful buildings with a perfectly manicured central courtyard. In the middle, the American flag and the flags of each branch of the military. Right next door was a large building where the tenants could receive needed services. Four years after its opening, it looked as if it was brand new.

The residents of Coney Island, who have seen their neighborhood enter a massive new phase of development spurred by a 2009 rezoning, say they have had enough of development. They see developers coming in and pushing out families that can’t afford to live elsewhere. They can’t get to work in the morning due to road closures and construction vehicles blocking roads. The first day of school had residents up in arms when they couldn’t get their kids to school on time.

Wanda Feliciano, a Community Board 13 member, has made a habit of grilling developers at community board meetings. At a recent one, a developer gave a presentation seeking approval for a rezoning. It wasn’t until Feliciano specifically asked that he mentioned that residents would be displaced. As resident leader of the Unity Tower development across the street from Surf Vets Place, Feliciano is surrounded by construction.

However, there are no complaints about Surf Vets Place. Feliciano said of the veterans, “They served our country, they deserve it.” With family members who have served, including one injured in combat, Feliciano praised not only the building, but the construction process as well. “They didn’t block traffic, they didn’t mess up the streets,” she said. With Surf Vets Place across the street, and a market rate development starting next door, Feliciano has noticed a stark difference in the disturbance caused by the construction. She said that she didn’t feel a thing during construction of Surf Vets Place, while work next door has shaken her entire building for hours.

Eddie Mark, District Manager of Community Board 13, of which Coney Island is a part, says that the community wants to give back to veterans. He did not have a single negative thing to say about it. He emphasized that market rate developments are different because they are pushing residents out of their homes.

One Coney Island resident, David Patterson, has more interest than most in the project. Patterson is a homeless veteran living in Coney Island, only six blocks away from Surf Vets Place. He served in the Marine Corps from 1972 to 1974 and was honorably discharged. Across from the Boardwalk, only feet away from Nathan’s Famous hot dog restaurant, Patterson sleeps on a slab of cardboard surrounded by his things. A friendly man, I met him when he saw me taking pictures and he asked me to take his. I did, and I noticed that he was wearing a Marine Corps hat. I asked him about it, and I found out that we had both been stationed on the tiny island of Okinawa, only 40 years apart. He knew about Surf Vets Place, but seemed to think it wouldn’t be finished for two more years.

Patterson has spent years on the streets looking for a place to live. A news report from November 2016 profiled Patterson and his struggle. In the piece, a member of the Marine Corps League Brooklyn described how they were going to use Patterson to figure out what the obstacles were to getting homeless veterans into housing. Almost two years later, Patterson is still on the streets.

I wanted to get Patterson’s perspective on Surf Vets Place, but I didn’t see him for a few weeks. When I saw him again, he said that he had been in and out of yet another place, which he wouldn’t discuss. Sitting outside Nathan’s Famous with a couple of empty hot dog boxes and a tall can in a paper bag, he seemed extremely depressed. He indicated that he was about to give up on the whole thing, saying, “I don’t care what happens to me.” He bristled at the thought of going into a traditional shelter, saying of the other residents, “They’ll steal your underwear.” He used to have a phone, but he said it was stolen. Everything he owns fits into a shopping cart. His healthcare is covered by the VA, but finding housing has proven more difficult.

Patterson said that he has multiple agencies working on his case, but he was not optimistic. “They’re working on it, they keep telling me. Meanwhile I’m out here on the streets.” I asked him what it would mean to him if he got one of the Surf Vets Place apartments. He paused for a while, and appeared to be fighting off tears, before saying, “I’d be dancing.”

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David Patterson at our first meeting. Photo by Sara Ohlms

Sara Ohlms can be reached at saraohlms@gmail.com

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