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Vets left waiting for housing vouchers in Pinellas

Mark Lossa and Dave Suiter live at a Department of Veterans Affairs residential program for homeless veterans but are eager to find apartments.

Both want to apply for subsidized housing vouchers so they can live independently in St. Petersburg.

"Everybody fears being on the street," said Suiter, 49, a Navy veteran who has struggled with substance abuse. "If I got a voucher, it'd be like the cornucopia of life. I'd be able to start my life over."

But even as the potentially lifesaving vouchers are awarded in Hillsborough and around the nation, it will be early January before homeless veterans in Pinellas can apply for them because of delays by the VA in hiring case managers who monitor and help veterans in the program.

The delays involve the 125 vouchers available in Pinellas since Oct. 1 and 115 in areas outside the county covered by the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg. They can be used by veterans to pay rent through the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which awards the vouchers.

The Housing and Urban Development Department announced the 2010 vouchers in June, and Bay Pines started the hiring process for the case managers in August.

"It takes a process," said Patricia Kovack, the voucher's program coordinator for Bay Pines. "I wish it could be instantaneous."

Of the 29,500 vouchers available nationally since 2008 from HUD — including 10,000 starting Oct. 1 — more than 27,000 have been awarded, VA officials in Washington say. HUD funds the vouchers, and the VA provides case management.

The James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa has hired nine people to oversee 2010 vouchers and has awarded 24 of the 150 available this year.

Some complain that Bay Pines has been slow to explain delays.

"I'm freaking out," said Lossa, an Air Force veteran who, like Suiter, must leave a Bay Pines residential program Jan. 20. "I'm a thread away from being independent."

Bay Pines held a voucher informational meeting for veterans after the St. Petersburg Times called about delays. The VA said the timing was a coincidence.

Faith Belcher, a Bay Pines spokeswoman, said the difficulty in Pinellas is the VA had to first fill two supervisory positions before it began hiring 10 case managers.

The hiring process, she said, began in August and has faced numerous challenges, from finding people for the demanding job to two candidates who accepted the position, but then backed out.

Five new managers will work with Pinellas veterans, while the rest will work with veterans from areas south of Pinellas, including Sarasota, Sebring and Fort Myers.

Bay Pines managed 175 vouchers in 2008 and 2009, and 157 are in use today with vacancies caused by veteran turnover.

Veterans must have some income to participate in the program. The average voucher in Pinellas is $584 monthly.

Preference is given to the neediest low-income veterans — those with kids, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, female veterans and veterans with disabilities.

Bay Pines officials said no veterans will be put out in the cold if they can't get a voucher or if they're scheduled to leave another VA program.

A fix, they say, will always be found, either in a VA program or with a community shelter.

"We don't say, 'You have to be out of here by 5 o'clock. Hit the road,' " said George Rohrmann, chief of a residential homeless program at Bay Pines. "We're not about that. We're about getting them off the street."

Nonetheless, Bay Pines housing officials say they understand veterans' anxiety.

"It's very comfortable here," Rohrmann said of his program housing veterans in a domiciliary on Bay Pines' 330-acre campus. "And there is anxiety when they start thinking about going back into the community."

What makes vouchers especially attractive to some veterans is that they don't automatically exclude those with a criminal record or history of drug use.

Of the 2,232 homeless people in Pinellas as of January 2009, about 18 percent were veterans, according to Bay Pines.

Jerry Van Dyke was one.

Until Monday, Van Dyke, 62, split his time between a tent in a friend's yard and sleeping on the floor of a storage room in St. Pete Beach. Van Dyke said he never heard of the vouchers and has struggled to find a VA bed.

Van Dyke, who said he has a history of substance abuse but is now clean, said he has leukemia.

Bay Pines declined to discuss his case. After the Times asked about Van Dyke, Bay Pines' homeless coordinator got in touch with the Navy veteran and found him accommodations.

"I know they're trying to do the best they can do," he said. "But I fell through the cracks."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com (813) 226-3432.

>>Fast facts

Here's help

Homeless veterans seeking help can call the Department of Veterans Affairs, toll-free, at 1-877-4AIDVET (424-3838) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Vets left waiting for housing vouchers in Pinellas 12/21/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 21, 2010 10:03pm]

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