DENVER-Last night 900 Denverites had to find a dry place to sleep if they were not lucky enough to find shelter in one of the local available temporary shelters. Last night’s downpour certainly soaked an entire segment of Denver’s residents who live on the streets. Art Perrault found himself among that group for the first time in his 64 years. A Vietnam veteran, Perrault had been squatting in his own home after a foreclosure that he had been fighting for years. Because of policies in place at the Veterans Administration Office, Perrault was required to sleep outside for one night to be considered homeless and therefore qualify for benefits that would assist him in finding both temporary and permanent housing.
In June the US Senate began an investigation into the health services that the Veterans Administration (VA) provides- including wait times-that a large number of vets have experienced. Some of those times have reportedly been blamed for deaths or furthering the serious illnesses of those seeking help. FBI Director James Comey announced that the investigation would begin in Phoenix.
But Denver veterans are saying that services to them are also delayed at a minimum or even nonexistent. Art Perrault is one of those veterans who because of complex regulations of the VA, was forced to spend a night on the street in order to claim one of those benefits. The Nation Report documented his journey through the evening and the next morning when he attempted to receive assistance from the VA.
The story began when despite efforts to secure a mortgage loan modification, Perrault lost his home of eight years in a foreclosure. Perrault turned to the Colorado Foreclosure Resistance Coalition (CFRC) for assistance since his own efforts to obtain help had failed and he was further strained to advance his struggle due to failing health.
The CFRC secured the help of Leanne Wheeler, the Colorado Pathways Home Veteran Advisory Group Co-Chair, herself a former homeless Veteran, to provide support to Perrault in his effort to obtain VA services.
President Obama has issued an Executive Directive to end Veteran homelessness, by December 31, 2015. The Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing or VASH voucher program has been implemented for the purpose of addressing veteran housing issues. The VASH voucher is intended to provide subsidized rent and supportive services along with case by case management. Perrault however has not found the program to be helpful to him.
Wheeler referred Perrault to the VA Community Resource and Referral Center (CRRC), where a case manager was assigned and his immediate medical needs were addressed. However, despite his heart condition, diabetes, requirement for oxygen, multiple strokes, a blood clot in his foot, and his illegally squatting in his home, Perrault was denied VASH voucher eligibility.
Wheeler then personally accompanied Perrault to the Denver VA Hospital Homeless Prevention Program, and ultimately connected with the Deputy Director, Michelle Lapidow (a colleague on the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative Board of Directors), who denied Perrault’s eligibility.
According to Perrault, he was contacted that same evening, by a VA employee, who refused to identify herself and said that his denial of eligibility was not based on a true assessment of his need (since he was indeed eligible), but on the case manager’s perceived slight by Wheeler advocating for Perrault.
Many local nonprofit programs require Perrault to spend one night on the street to receive assistance, however doing so is illegal under Denver’s 2012 Urban Camping Ban ordinance. Another option for him would have been to spend one night in a shelter before he is considered homeless, however he likely would not have found an available bed. These were the only two options available to him to receive services.
To support Perrault in satisfying the VA requirements members of CFRC and Denver Homeless Out Loud another housing advocacy group, along with Wheeler spent the night on the street with Perrault in support. In doing so, his supporters said that they wanted to highlight the subjectivity and disparity in the VASH voucher eligibility determination, while calling attention to how the process shows deference to one illegal act (sleeping on the street) over another (illegally squatting in a house). According to Wheeler, “The law is one thing, but there is also the fact that there are currently 200 VASH vouchers in Colorado that have not been issued and that are at risk of being lost. It is our intention to escort Art Perrault to the CRRC, at the open of business to sign the sworn affidavit required of him, to finally be considered homeless.”
The Nation Report went along to cover Perrault’s first night on the street and then later his attempt to secure a housing voucher.
The night of Monday, August 25 was a cool night. Perrault reported that he did not sleep the entire night. A downpour of rain began about 3 am and supporters found shelter in tents or cars. The rain subsided by morning and the group waited for the VA office to open.
To verify that Perrault had spent the night on the street, an affidavit was required to be signed by himself and in addition five supporters signed as witnesses. The group then entered the VA office and signed in although his case worker was not in. The group waited outside for about 30 minutes when the case manager called Perrault back inside. His followers accompanied him but The Nation Report was refused entrance into the building and was instructed to leave.
Darren O’Connor, member of CFRC reported that he and Perrault’s advocate Wheeler were not allowed to accompany Perrault into his VA interview before which Perrault demanded that they remain with him according to O’Connor, “[Perrault] said, ‘I want you two in here. I’ve been lied to enough. I’ve had enough of this [expletive]’, and before that we were listening at the door when that [VA office worker] told us we couldn’t listen at the door. I said to him, we’re his advocates. We were told we could be with him and we’re going to be right here.”
Still Perrault was denied advocacy and advocates at his interview.
“The first thing that he said was, ‘I’m scared’ and she still wouldn’t let us in”, O’Connor continued, “We’re his legal advocates. We have been assigned to him. We have the right to converse with them on his behalf.”
Mikel Whitney of CFRC also protested, “At his age and his condition, why would they question someone to be with him?”
Although the group left without a housing voucher and without answers, Wheeler outlined new possibilities for veterans to pursue that have been developed within recent weeks, “There’s been a change in the vulnerability index. They’ve got a new tool now and so they’ve run Art through that new gate. The feedback we’re getting is that it’s not going to be an automated process across the contiuum of care which is seven counties. So we’re going to take a look at 155 different agencies within the Denver Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. That constitutes a contiuum of care- seven counties- and make a determination on how this veteran falls against all other veterans who may have done an intake elsewhere as far as his likelihood of dying on the street if he didn’t have a home to live in. So that part to me is a little troubling to me. So now he has this new assessment that he has to do.”
Perrault returned to his home to continue squatting until he receives the relief that he seeks.
Refufia Gaintan/The Nation Report