I-Team: Housing vouchers not enough to keep South Bay veterans off the streets

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- Homeless veterans are having a tough time finding shelter with the Bay Area's red hot housing market. I have been digging into solutions for one veteran known as the "voice of San Jose" and have seen how difficult an issue it is while investigating this one case. There are many good people trying to make a difference but have trouble cutting through the red tape.

Personnel records show Ramon Johnson served six years in the Navy, including stints aboard the USS Milwaukee and USS Kidd in a clerical position. Then, his mental illness got the best of him. The voices in his head grew louder.

"At first the voices were comforting, but then they started becoming negative and destructive and dark," he said.

After an unauthorized absence, he spent eight months in the brig on Treasure Island before a bad conduct discharge. Johnson was able to get his life together, supported by disability payments from Social Security. He graduated with honors from De Anza College and San Jose State, and made a mark as a graduate teacher's assistant.

These undated images show homeless veteran Ramon Johnson, who graduated with honors from De Anza College and San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.


"He has a large voice and a large heart and a large laugh, and he's exuberant and he loved working with the students. He couldn't wait to make something happen and be a part of it, it was electric," said San Jose State Professor Elizabeth Harris.

Johnson also acted in theater productions, organized political forums, and started a weekly blues radio show that he continues to this day.

He became a well-known South Bay figure, "the voice of San Jose," organizing blues festivals, bringing in big name talent, and raising money for nonprofits including Second Harvest Food Bank.

"I even have people want to take photographs with me or ask me for autographs," Johnson said. "Little do they know that after I finish with them, I'm going over by First and Santa Clara in front of a vacant office building and I'm sleeping out homeless."

Johnson can't keep a job because of his schizophrenia. He lived in a house for 16 years until this past March, when the landlord decided to stop accepting vouchers from the Housing Authority. He could make more money from a tenant paying market rate.

"A one bedroom unit in Santa Clara County is going for about $2,500, but the Housing Authority subsidies only able to pay up to $1,650 a month for a one bedroom unit," said Mona Bazzi with the Palo Alto VA.

That leaves hundreds of Santa Clara County veterans out in the cold, including Ramon Johnson. He sleeps in the doorway of a vacant building near San Jose City Hall each night, and his only comfort is his dog Navarro. Johnson tells me he misses silence, misses feeling safe. He says he's been beaten and has to be constantly on guard.

This undated image shows homeless veteran Ramon Johnson in a hospital with his beloved dog.


"One of the issues I'm dealing with is the pain and sleeping on the concrete and all the other homeless issues. I just, I'm not getting any sleep and I'm just exhausted," said Johnson.

He has been in the emergency room for pain, fatigue, and nausea several times since I started working on this story two weeks ago. Johnson's friend Alene Creager contacted me to help him. She first met Johnson at Del Mar High in San Jose, where he was the student body president and quarterback of the football team.

"If anyone deserves to have pride restored and respect, it's someone like Ramon who served our country," said a tearful Creager.

I contacted veterans groups, and the Palo Alto VA sent two homeless outreach coordinators to interview Johnson on Tuesday.

The Palo Alto VA's David Grillo asked Johnson: "Would you prefer to stay in this area if we can get you into transitional housing for up to two years?"

But, there was a problem. Johnson's case was stuck in red tape.

Noyes: "What options might he have?"
Grillo: "It depends. We need to get our hands on his military discharge papers, his DD214."

UPDATE: VIDEO: Homeless veteran gets help, thanks to I-Team

Another veterans housing group ordered those same documents two months ago. All that time, Johnson has remained on the street. That's what's frustrating. A group that works with veterans ought to be able to access those records quickly. I made a few phone calls and got it done in just one day.

Noyes: "They are expediting your DD214. It's going to be there by the end of business today."
Johnson: "God, that would be great."

The DD214 confirms Johnson's service, and that he received the Navy Expeditionary Medal. That could bring him more benefits. Help couldn't come soon enough.

"I say, I just want to be human again," Johnson told me.

His health is worsening. I had to drop him back at the hospital on Tuesday. They gave him pain meds and a walker. He's back on the street.

"His spirit's about broken and we need to help him and other people like him, there has to be a better solution to the problem," said Creager.

The Palo Alto VA launched a phone bank on Wednesday. Their Chief of Homeless Programs Kate Severin commented, "The beauty is the veterans can live in these apartments for the rest of their lives, this is a permanent lifetime supportive housing voucher."

Fifteen volunteers from AT&T cold-called landlords, trying to find housing for hundreds of homeless veterans in Santa Clara County. It will be a tough sell until the housing authority increases the value of those vouchers.
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