WASHINGTON — Darren Spencer, a 39-year-old Army veteran from Tacoma, Wash., found himself homeless after losing his $15.45-an-hour job as a furniture mover a year ago. He takes pills for his depression and has trouble hearing. He has no car, and his unemployment benefits ran out in December. But Spencer considers himself lucky on one count: Last August, he got a voucher from the federal government to help pay the $725 monthly rent for his apartment in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, where he lives with his 18-year-old son, Lamont.
"I still have a lot of stress, but that's one thing I don't have to stress about," Spencer said. "It's still hard, but at least now I have a place to stay."
Spencer is among thousands of beneficiaries of a federal effort to end all homelessness among veterans by 2015. It's a lofty goal as the nation gears up to accommodate another 1 million service members who are set to return home from war in the next five years
To get the job done, President Barack Obama and the Veterans Affairs Department are thinking big, asking Congress to increase spending for veterans homeless programs by 33 percent next year, to $1.35 billion.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state is the champion of the cause, making the issue a centerpiece of her tenure as the chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Last year, when some Republicans in the House of Representatives proposed eliminating 10,000 vouchers as a way to save $75 million from the 2011 federal budget, Murray led the fight to get the money reinstated. At the time, Republicans defended the plan by saying that many of the vouchers weren't being used, but the program has won plenty of bipartisan backing and critics have been largely silent this year.
"I can't tell you how many people have come up to me on the street who tell me stories of having lived on the streets, out of Dumpsters, in horrible conditions, and because of a voucher have got a place to live and are now back. ... My passion comes from that," Murray said in an interview.
Murray, who also heads the Senate Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, called the president's latest budget request "absolutely essential" and said the administration's timetable was laudable.
"We'd all like to end it tomorrow," Murray said. "But it's the first time they've set a goal of doing this, which really focuses everybody on what we are doing."
Last month, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development sent out $73 million in voucher aid to public housing agencies in all 50 states, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan called the level of homelessness among veterans a "national disgrace."
According to the government's latest count, 67,495 of the nation's 22 million veterans were homeless last year. That was a nearly 12 percent drop from a year earlier, when the government found 76,329 veterans in emergency shelters or living in their cars, abandoned buildings or on the streets. If Congress approves the new funding request, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress last month, the number of homeless veterans will fall to 35,000 next year.
But Murray, the first woman to lead the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, is none too pleased with the VA's performance in one key area: She says far too many female veterans are falling through the cracks and getting inferior service when they do find their way to government shelters.
While the overall numbers have declined, the number of homeless female veterans more than doubled from 2006 to 2010, rising from 1,380 to 3,328.
A report last month by the VA's inspector general found that women face serious safety and security shortcomings in shelters, especially those who experienced sexual trauma in the military. Investigators found women assigned to live in mixed-gender facilities with bedrooms and bathrooms that lacked sufficient locks, and halls and stairways that didn't have proper lighting. In one case, a woman and her 18-month-old son were assigned to a building that housed a homeless male veteran who was a registered sex offender.
"Sometimes they stay on the street because it's more safe than going into a facility that doesn't have locked doors or separate bathrooms," Murray said. "Or in some cases where these women have children, there's no place for their children. ... That is really an outrage to me."
Spencer, who served six years in the military after he joined at age 18, said he'd been frustrated with the VA because he wanted more help with his mental health issues. He said he thought he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but that he'd received medication only for depression.
"It's just been pill after pill after pill," he said.
For the last 15 years, he said, he's worked a variety of jobs, "from a steamboat to a billy goat — I've done it all." His jobs included grinding metal at a foundry, working in warehouses as a shipping clerk and forklift operator, even helping to produce a radio show. He said he had to file for bankruptcy in 2005 and that it had been difficult for him to maintain either a job or a place to live.
"No matter how much I tried, every two steps I would go forward there would be five steps taking me back," he said. "It just seemed like somebody had their foot on my neck and I could not get up."
Each voucher, which is provided by the HUD-VA Supportive Housing Program, is worth roughly $7,500, with veterans paying no more than 30 percent of their incomes for rent. Local housing programs help HUD and the VA administer the program.
Since he lost his unemployment benefits, Spencer said, he's been relying on "the grace of God" to survive, along with timely temporary jobs such as helping friends or acquaintances move.
Without a federal housing voucher, he said, he has no doubts that he'd be homeless again.
"It's been a big load off of my shoulders," Spencer said. "And it just feels good to be able to say I have a place to stay, and my kid has a place to lay his head."