‘Heartbroken’ Veterans Say They Need Proposition 21

Karen Ocamb News

It looks like even the calvary isn’t saddling up to ride to the rescue. On Oct. 6, upon returning from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he was aggressively treated for COVID-19, President Trump ordered negotiators to stop discussing a new stimulus deal until after he wins the election. He tweeted from the White House — now a coronavirus hot spot — that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was “asking for $2.4 Trillion Dollars to bailout poorly run, high crime, Democrat States, money that is in no way related to COVID-19.” The tweet came just hours after Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell issued a dire warning: “A long period of unnecessarily slow progress could continue to exacerbate existing disparities in our economy. That would be tragic.”

Though Trump partially reversed course after the Stock Market plunged precipitously, the fate of federal money Gov. Gavin Newsom counted on when pledging to battle homelessness in his unprecedented State of the State address before COVID and for the public health effort Project Roomkey is now at risk as California fights a threatened economy, the coronavirus pandemic, unending wildfires, and a growing homelessness crisis on the verge of exploding. San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin district where hundreds of people sleep on sidewalks, told the Los Angeles Times he is “a bit disappointed” in Newsom’s leadership. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has endorsed Proposition 21 as a tool to help terrified residents.

Prop 21 is the statewide ballot measure that puts limits on unfair, sky-high rent increases, reins in corporate landlord greed, and prevents homelessness. Top experts at USC, UCLA, and UC Berkeley agree that sensible rent limits are key for stabilizing California’s housing affordability crisis. That’s why U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, labor and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, Congressmembers Maxine Waters, Karen Bass, and Barbara Lee, the California Democratic Party, and the Los Angeles Times, among many others, have thrown their full support behind Prop 21.

Right now, the future looks dire. Layoffs continue as struggling businesses close and federal, state, and local eviction moratoriums are set to expire at the end of January 2021 with full back rent, interest, and late fees and penalties due. The moratorium, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), tells AARP,  is “a half-measure that extends a financial cliff for renters to fall off of when the moratorium expires and back rent is owed.”

Among those at high risk of eviction are veterans who suffer multiple layers of pain which are exacerbated by the threatened or actual loss of shelter. But stoicism has its limits. California, home to the nation’s largest population of veterans, has a high rate of vets who die by suicide, with a “very concerning” upward trend for those on active duty, according to an Oct. 1 report released by the Pentagon. COVID only has worsened the crisis with the Army alone reporting a 30% increase in 2020 in deaths by suicide, according to the Associated Press. 

But with the Commander-in-Chief, Adm. Charles W. Ray, vice commandant of the Coast Guard, Marine Corps Assistant Commandant Gen. Gary Thomas testing positive, and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other senior military leaders “self-quarantining,” are the top brass watching out for vets?  

 “Veterans give everything,” says Carlos Marroquin, 60, an Army veteran and reservist who is a renter in Hollywood. “When I see veterans — many of us suffering from the consequences of being in war and not being taken care of — it’s heartbreaking. Many of them are already dealing with illnesses and having to deal with a housing crisis, being at risk of being evicted — those are very serious, serious things, and we need to acknowledge that we have done a poor job. America has done a poor job in protecting their veterans.”

Carlos Marroquin

Marroquin supports Prop 21 “because it will keep people in their homes. It is critical in times like this, when so many people are suffering, so many people are out of work, and so many people cannot meet their daily or their monthly payments on their apartment due to the multiple crisis that we are facing — so, immediately, the number one thing that we need to do is to help keep people from being unhoused,” he says. “Not being able to help our service [members] in whatever house they have right now — it’s ungodly.”

Marroquin works with organizations that help the homeless. “I speak with veterans that are living on rat-infested streets and it breaks my heart to know that people that serve honorably in the military have to sleep under conditions that I didn’t even see during the time that I served in the military,” he says.

And now, Marroquin, too, is at risk of eviction. After 34 years working at the Post Office, he was sent home because he has a lung condition and is at high risk for contracting COVID. “My work didn’t have any work for me so I was sent home. So, I have no pay right now. I’m not qualified to get unemployment either because I’m still employ” and in “a very difficult” situation.

“It’s personal to me because if they could jack up the rent — where am I going to go?” he says. “I have no security. I’m depending on Proposition 21 to give me my home… It’s a dire situation for me. Right now, we have some limited protections against eviction, but all those things come to an end. Veterans need more than a Band Aid. We need real housing. We need to be able to have roof over our head and not worry about having a landlord knock on my door to throw me out to the streets. Proposition 21 is the right thing to do for all of our veterans.”

Laila Goring (pictured above) says Prop 21 is personal for her, too. Born in San Diego in Nov. 1981 but raised in Mexico, Goring was honorably discharged in 2006 from Fort Irwin — one of 32 bases in California.

“I found myself having a very difficult time finding an affordable place to live in San Diego,” Goring says. “During the time where you have that transition out of the military, you get like a week of training on how to build a resume and how to apply for a job. But there’s not really a long period of time where you can start looking for jobs and have any interviews. So when I got out of the military, I filed for unemployment, which is good for six months. But I was enlisted and the salary was low for a civilian world – and unemployment is based on the salary. I was bouncing from one friend’s house to another, pretty much living out of my luggage. It took me eight months to finally land a job. But if it wasn’t for the help of friends, I really would have to sleep in my car.”  

Goring’s story helps explain why so many vets are at risk for eviction and homelessness.

Goring was 20 in 2002 when she joined the Army as a 92A, an automated logistics specialist. “I was living on my own. I was really young and it was very hard to try to pay for college and work at the same time,” she says. A military recruiter on her community college campus told Goring, “We’re going to give you a scholarship. You will be able to pick any career you want.”  

Three and a half years later, she received an honorable discharge for medical reasons, having fallen off a very high obstacle course during  basic training and landing on her back, breaking her tailbone. She also had pain in her hip and during physical therapy, doctors found stretch fractures. Upon discharge, Goring received some benefits from the Veterans Administration and access to the GI Bill, which paid for college but not food or rent.

“I was determined to have a college degree. I understood that education was my way out. But it was extremely difficult,” she says. The VA “doesn’t have that many resources to navigate a system in the civilian world where you can find a job and housing. You’re pretty much on your own.” That’s very different from military life where “you follow orders. Everything is really set up for a way that you would become very dependent on the military style.”

After her discharge, life became “very challenging. I felt completely lost.” It took over a year to get disability approval. Counselors told her there was nothing they could do for her. “Not even McDonald’s would hire me. And I remember someone saying, ‘Well, you’re probably overqualified,’” she says. Goring majored in political science and graduated with honors from the University of Hawaii. She had several congressional internships and worked for representatives in Hawaii.

“While I’m grateful that I have some sort of insurance, as a female veteran, I can tell you that one of the worst healthcare services that I have had is through the VA. It’s like pulling teeth to see a doctor in order to access a specialist,” Goring says. “I served this country with a lot of pride. But when you go to the VA… it’s a nightmare. I have people insult me for no reason. And mind you, I have a college degree. I’m a professional person. I have worked very hard… and to be treated like crap every single time… I have to be honest. The VA is far from being sympathetic. It is not a place that I want to be. Right now, I have to pay for Kaiser out of my pocket, because for me to deal with the VA is more stressful and a horrible experience. But I still go to maintain the medical records.”

Goring is unemployed but looking for advocacy work in a healthcare, immigration or environmental nonprofit. She lives in San Diego with her two children and is worried about getting COVID because medications for arthritis have suppressed her immune system. She’s separated from her husband but “he’s very supportive, especially with this dynamic.”

Goring’s not facing the imminent fear of eviction. “But, God forbid, if anything happened to [her husband], I will not have the ability to provide for my kids. So, it’s always in the back of my mind.”

Vets who are one kindness or one paycheck away from homelessness are counting on California voters to be the calvary and vote Yes on Prop. 21.   

Suicide Lifeline: Struggling with suicidal thoughts? Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.

The Military/Veterans Crisis Line is a free online chat and text-messaging service for ALL service members and veterans, even those  not registered with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs (VA) or enrolled in VA health care. Call 1-800-273-8255 and press 1.

If you are grieving a lost servicemember, please contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) at 800-959-8277.