Victor Caputo passes the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Leeds from time to time. He used to work there.
“Every time I drive by there, I see poor souls walking outside back and forth, back and forth, and I think, ‘I just don’t think there’s enough resources for them,'” Caputo said. He got choked up talking about it.
Caputo is now a landlord, and rents out 12 apartments in Florence and Leeds. He was one of a dozen or so property owners who attended a meeting at the Northampton Senior Center Tuesday morning that detailed how landlords can give homeless veterans in the area a stable place to live.
Caputo doesn’t currently rent to any veterans. And before the informational session, he said he didn’t know about the HUD/VASH program, an initiative from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing that provides shelter assistance through its Section 8 voucher program.
After the meeting, Caputo said he is now wants to make the extra effort to house veterans.
“One of my apartments is right on Lake Street,” he said. “They could walk right to the VA center in Leeds.”
In essence, the program allows homeless veterans to rent privately owned housing, while still being required contribute 30 to 40 percent of their personal income. At the same time, landlords receive a guaranteed paycheck from HUD/VASH each month for the remaining balance.
And if a veteran can’t make their portion of the rent due to various circumstances, other programs — primarily the Supportive Services for Veteran Families — can likely cover it, at least for a few months.
Steven Connor, director of Northampton Veteran’s Services, also noted that his agency’s portion of the city budget has grown substantially since he took over 13 years ago. Veteran’s Services got about $32,000 annually in the early 2000s. Now, that’s jumped to about $600,000.
So if a vet in Northampton needs some supplementary funds to pay for rent beyond what is provided by HUD/VASH, Veteran’s Services might be able to help with that.
“We need to make sure we have systems in place, so if someone comes into community that’s homeless, we have services, support and collaborations in place to serve them,” Mayor David J. Narkewicz said at the meeting.
There’s an extreme need for veteran housing in Northampton, officials say, even though the city has housed 144 veterans over the past year.
According to rough estimates by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Northampton had a homeless population of 184 individuals on the night of Jan. 29, 2015; 140 were veterans.
Compare that to Amherst, which had an estimated 41 homeless people on that day none of which were veterans. After Pittsfield, Northampton had the highest number of homeless veterans in Hampden, Franklin and Hampshire counties.
Connor noted that once 44 units for veterans commissioned by the nonprofit Soldier On become available in Leeds — which is expected to happen in April — the number of homeless vets in Northampton should go down substantially.
Some landlords at the meeting said they were completely unaware that the HUD/VASH program is an option.
One landlord, the daughter of a Korean War veteran, stood up and said, “You had me at hello. Thank you so much for making this public.”
William Yenner, a Northampton landlord with 26 rental units, also said he had never heard of HUD/VASH. He’s not housing any veterans right now.
“I think it’s a worthy project, and I’d like to support it if I can,” he said.
Caseworkers at the event acknowledged that some veterans fall behind on their rent. And many renters may require first and last months’ rent, plus a security deposit — something that isn’t covered up front by HUD/VASH.
But Katherine Person, a services advocate at Veterans Inc. in Springfield, explained that agencies like hers can cover up to six months of rent in those circumstances through the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
“If someone has a voucher, we’re basically a checkbook,” she said.
SSVF can also help pay for furniture, moving expenses and property manager fees. And if a problem develops during the tenancy, landlords can contact case managers through HUD/VASH.
Sue Moorman, a social worker with the VA center in Leeds, said Northampton is a “hot ticket commodity area for our veterans” due to Soldier On housing being located there.
“When veterans comes into Soldier On, they get very acclimated to support in the area,” Moorman explained. ” It represents the first time they’ve had stability in their lives. If they can’t find a Northampton apartment, they wind up starting all over again and it’s very hard on them psychologically.”
The city will hold another meeting for landlords at the WWII Club at 50 Conz St. on Feb. 3 at 5:30 p.m.