These days, Steven Sutton sleeps on a wooden bunk bed inside the crowded Poverello Center homeless shelter. The 36-year-old veteran has crooked teeth and a five o'clock shadow, and he wears battered black work boots that he can't afford to replace.
Despite the fact that he has nowhere else to go but the Pov, Sutton tries to stay positive. Maintaining some level of optimism is a lesson he learned in the Navy. "If I go completely negative, it's just going to make it harder for me to get back up," Sutton says. "You just try to keep your head above the situation and work things through."
Between 1996 and 1999, Sutton served at Virginia's Norfolk Naval Amphibious Base as a "boatswain's mate," operating cranes, boats and bulldozers to help, he says, keep ships up to snuff. Sutton's skills haven't translated well in the private sector, where certifications that he doesn't have are often required to operate heavy machinery. Unable to secure work and on the heels of a divorce, Sutton found himself last year with no place to live and only $400 in his pocket. Seeing no other option, he came to the Pov.
Sutton represents part of a troubling issue that local, state and federal policymakers have grappled with for years. In 2011, 67,495 veterans were homeless, according the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Missoula, Pov staffers estimate that roughly 25 percent of the people who sleep at the Ryman Street shelter on any given night have served in the armed forces.
That number could rise in the near future. The federal budget sequestration, which includes $85 billion in funding cuts that began March 1, is threatening to exacerbate what are already challenging circumstances for people like Sutton.
Lori Davidson from Missoula Housing Authority, which administers federal housing subsidies, says that because of the sequester, low-income veterans and civilians waiting to access federal housing vouchers will likely have an even tougher time doing so this year than they have in the past.
"We won't be able to issue new vouchers to families that have (already) been on our waiting list for two to three years," Davidson says.
In 2012, Congress and the president cut federal Section 8 funding to the lowest levels in the program's history, Davidson says. According to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Congress pared back housing assistance programs between 2010 and 2012 by $2.5 billion, or 5.9 percent.
This month's sequester compounded the problem. HUD estimates that the budget cuts nationally will cause 125,000 individuals and families, including veterans, to lose Section 8 housing assistance.
Davidson says her office has already done what it can to weather budget cuts, but is unable to maintain certain services with the sequester. Last year, MHA tapped $300,000 in reserve funds to help keep the housing program—and its clients—afloat. The same can't be done this year. That means MHA will have to eliminate 50 of its 774 Section 8 vouchers. "We will be serving 50 less families on an ongoing basis," Davidson says.
There are other housing subsidies for former service members like Sutton that are not subject to the sequester, such as "HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers." But, as with Section 8, there aren't enough to go around. According to Montana's Department of Veterans Affairs, 283 veterans in Montana are now waiting for VASH vouchers. The waiting list typically runs between three and six months.
Vietnam veteran John Maldonado is on the VASH list. For the past six months, he's waited at the Pov to secure a voucher that will enable him and his wife Iris to leave the shelter.
Maldonado says his father, brother and sister all served in the military, so in 1975 he followed family tradition and joined the Army. He was just 17 and served in Vietnam as the war was ending. His airborne unit was charged with constructing plane runways and securing airport perimeters.
Decades after his service, Maldonado came to Montana looking for an economic stability that he hadn't found on the East Coast. The former chef and oil field worker says it was his elderly mother who suggested that he land in the Treasure State. "I said, 'We're going to go west,'" he recalls. "She says, 'You need to go to God's country.' I said, 'There's such a thing as God's country?' She goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Well, where's that at?' She said, 'Montana.'"
Maldonado laughs as he recites this story from inside the Pov. Despite his humor, he is fully cognizant of the gravity of his situation. His felony theft conviction has made it even harder for him to find work in Missoula. He would work in the oil fields again, he says, but he worries about leaving his wife alone at the shelter, where tensions sometimes run high. "I want to get my wife out of here," he says. "I can't leave her here."
As for Sutton, he may have fewer responsibilities but it's still tough to keep his spirits high. "It's kind of like you're looking at people and going, 'Wow, this is getting harder,'" he says. Based on the current backlog, Sutton could be waiting at the Pov for several more months.