Closing of Laredo shelter a blow to veterans
Homelessness remains a problem for some veterans.
By Martin Kuz San Antonio Express-News
LAREDO — John Perez thinks back on his experience in war as a time when life made sense.
Deployed to Iraq in 2006 with the Marines, he served as an operations specialist, arranging the logistics for truck convoys delivering fuel and supplies to U.S. troops. He enjoyed the complexity of the work as much as the clarity of purpose.
What bewildered him was returning to the civilian world after his honorable discharge in 2008.
The San Antonio Express-News reports that he left the military hoping to save a marriage that unspooled over the next two years. In 2012, he lost his job at a retail store when his bosses refused to alter his work schedule so that he could attend community college.
As Perez began taking classes, he ran through a series of low-wage jobs that paid too little for him to keep his apartment. By this summer, he had slipped into homelessness, couch-surfing from one friend's house to another.
He recovered a measure of stability in August after learning about a veterans transitional center housed inside the Rio Grande Plaza Hotel on the fringe of Laredo's downtown. Since opening in February, the program has provided shelter for more than 100 homeless veterans, creating a refuge from uncertainty.
"This place has been a godsend," said Perez, 29, looking out the wall-to-wall windows on one side of his seventh-floorroom, with views of the border-town sprawl that spreads across the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo. "It gives you a chance to catch your breath."
But the forces of progress soon will engulf the oasis. The center closed Thursday because of the hotel's pending sale and renovation, and half the 28 veterans enrolled in the program at the start of December will have moved out by month's end.
Perez and the others will hold on to their rooms until late spring in exchange for working at the hotel 100 hours a month, tending to maintenance, housekeeping and similar tasks. Then they too must pack up and leave.
"It's a blow," said Perez, who attends Texas A&M International University on the GI Bill and wants to teach high school. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Laredo tops $700 a month, and he wonders if more couch-surfing lies ahead. "I try not to dwell on that."
The center's demise on the last day of 2015 overlapped with the passing of a five-year deadline for a national campaign to end veterans homelessness. President Barack Obama and federal officials set that target date when they launched the initiative in 2010.
The effort, if failing to reach its original goal, has succeeded in reducing the number of veterans living on the streets and in shelters by more than a third, from 74,000 to fewer than 48,000.
Much of the decline has occurred in large metro areas, including San Antonio, where housing officials had placed 694 veterans in permanent housing this year as of Dec. 15.
Houston, Las Vegas and New Orleans are among several cities where officials declared in the past year that they had eliminated veterans homelessness.
Virginia's governor announced last month that his state had accomplished the feat.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced Dec. 30 that Austin had met the federal definition of ending veteran homelessness, such as having a system in place — and enough housing stock — so any veteran on the streets can move into housing within 90 days. The mayor's office, the city's apartment trade association and local nonprofits say they've met their goal of securing 200 units on the private housing market by the end of the year, though not all are currently occupied by veterans.
A federal rental assistance program run by the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs has proven crucial to the campaign across the country.
Eligible veterans receive a voucher that covers 70 percent or more of their rent, and they gain access to mental health counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, job training and other support services.
Laredo has received 15 vouchers, a consequence of joining the program only this year, after the VA hired a housing case manager to work at its outpatient clinic here. Veterans advocates calculate that 75 to 110 former service members lack permanent housing in the city of 250,000 residents.
Given the scarcity of vouchers, the veterans center has lightened the burden on Laredo's emergency and transitional shelters.
Gabriel Lopez founded the South Texas Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Association in 2008. A veteran of both wars, he had come back to his hometown of Laredo a year earlier following two decades in the Navy.
Lopez organized the veterans transitional center after Bill Collier, the Plaza's primary owner, approached him about a plan to house former service members.
A Lubbock oilman whose late father served in World War II, Collier, who knew of Lopez's advocacy work, offered to provide rent-free rooms to homeless veterans.
The two men anticipated that the center would attract perhaps 10 to 15 veterans. By spring, more than 40 had moved into the 15-story hotel, some with spouses and young children.
Last December, the VA in Laredo hired Jennifer Roby as its lone housing case manager based in the city.
The point-in-time count occurred a few weeks later and identified five homeless veterans — or half as many as Roby had encountered in her first month on the job.
The case of Javier Hernandez illuminated what can happen when a private group and a public agency find common cause.
The Air Force veteran, who grew up in Laredo, called Lopez this summer after he was laid off from his oil rig job in Midland and explained that he needed a place to stay. Lopez offered him a room at the hotel.
Two weeks later, the 25-year-old Hernandez contacted Roby, who provided him with a housing voucher to move into a two-bedroom apartment. He covers $166 of his $650 monthly rent with a portion of his GI Bill money, and in a few weeks he will begin classes at Laredo Community College in pursuit of a paramedic career.