Aid assessment, new resources in Aurora put housing help in veterans’ reach

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AURORA | Johnny Morris, 59, was able to survive eight years in Army service, with deployments in Korea, Afghanistan and Germany. But it was his eventual return to Colorado following that time in the service that almost killed him.

“I got really depressed. I ended up wanting to commit suicide,” said Morris, who said he tried to run into a stream of oncoming traffic before calling the Denver VA Medical Center for help.

At the time, Morris was hopping between living out of his car and staying at a friend’s place.

With the help of VA staff, Morris was able to get a bed with the Aurora Mental Health Center last year, which has a 15-bed transitional home for veterans.

Today, thanks to a program called the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH Program) — where veterans receive the rental assistance through the VA and a Section 8 housing voucher — Morris lives comfortably in his own one-bedroom apartment in Aurora. 

“When I got here it was tore up, but when I saw this view of the mountains I said, ‘I don’t care,’” said Morris, pointing to his balcony view of the sweeping Colorado Rockies. The apartment has been renovated with new wood floors, and Morris has been able to sparsely decorate his place with a red mirror as well as a donated leather sofa set and coffee table.

“If it wasn’t for the VA and the  Aurora Veterans home, I would be down there on skid row, too, somewhere,” he said. Morris is disabled and said he suffers from chronic nerve damage, back and knee problems, diabetes and PTSD. He said there would be no way to afford his $980-a-month home without his VA disability money and rental assistance.

Through the program, veterans can rent privately owned housing and contribute no more than 30 percent of their income toward rent, and are also provided with a case management worker from a participating VA medical center.

Aurora will be able to help more homeless veterans this year — who make up 1 in 4 homeless people nationwide, according to the National Coalition for the homeless — find affordable housing. That’s thanks to an effort to reduce homelessness by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

In June, the agencies awarded the Aurora Housing Authority $96,660 for 15 housing vouchers that will provide homeless veterans and their families with housing assistance in the city.

Tania Morris, director of AHA’s Assisted Housing, said the organization already reserves 85 vouchers for homeless veterans, but that the need for more is ongoing. She said the AHA has provided 66 veterans with the vouchers, but that 12 of those recipients are still searching for a landlord that will accept the vouchers.

“I think the rental market is softening a bit, but rates are still high. The availability and number of vacancies is still an obstacle for a lot of our clients,” she said.

HUD and the VA awarded $412,668 in total to cities around the state to help 68 homeless veterans find a permanent home in Colorado.

Helping homeless veterans find adequate housing in a hot market has been a struggle, said Chris Thomas, who works as a peer support apprentice with the Denver VA Medical Center’s homeless and vocational programs. 

Thomas conducts the first of several screenings a veteran goes through at the medical center while requesting shelter. If the veteran is screened as being vulnerable enough to need the housing voucher, the individual will be referred to a caseworker as well as a housing specialist at the VA.

Thomas is also veteran who has experienced homelessness and uses HUD-VASH assistance to rent an apartment that is in a building specifically designated for veterans. He said the ability to receive a housing voucher through the VA has become much more competitive than when he received it. So much so, that when he tried to use his voucher to rent elsewhere, he said he couldn’t find another landlord to accept it.

“We’re getting a lot of out-of-state traffic coming in. Just like two or three days off of bus, and they’re coming here looking for housing,” he said. “We have no immediate housing. Everything has a wait list, and HUD-VASH is particularly difficult to get into.”

Mandy Anderson, a social worker with the Denver VA’s homeless and vocational services, said there are options for veterans who don’t qualify for housing voucher assistance.  She said those include transitional housing as well as a VA-owned domiciliary in Lakewood called Valor Point.

Anderson said during her time as a social worker with the VA, she has seen many newly homeless veterans. People she said, who have been recently evicted because of rent increases and properties they live in being sold.

“In this economy, it’s really stirred the pot,” she said, reporting that she sees veterans as young as 22 and as old as 93.

Michelle Lapidow, the assistant chief of the Denver VAMC’s homeless and vocational programs, said in 2015 the Denver VA gave 1,306 vouchers to veterans to use in cities across the state and conducted 1,115 assessments of homeless veterans.

According to a press release from HUD, more than $400,000 for vouchers is also being awarded to Denver, Pueblo, Fort Collins, Grand Junction and Denver to find 68 veterans across the state find permanent homes.