In Malibu, a Section 8 voucher gives one man a place to live

Rigo Veloso in his studio apartment. Photo by Anna Scott

Malibu is known for ultra luxury housing, like celebrity beach mansions and hidden canyon estates. But one homeowner recently began renting a back house to the city’s first-ever Section 8 tenant.

It all started one day roughly a year ago, when 76-year-old Colin Dangaard looked out the window of his home on a sprawling Malibu ranch and saw that someone had erected a camping tent outside.

“So I see a guy put his head out the tent,” Dangaard recalled, “and I think, that’s interesting.”

The man in the tent was Rigo Veloso, 47. Veloso had been living behind the Malibu Library until one of Dangaard’s other tenants, a woman who rented a trailer from him, invited Veloso to Dangaard’s property.

He’d ended up behind the library after bouncing around a few Westside neighborhoods. “Everybody looks down on you when you’re homeless,” Veloso said of the experience. “They don’t see you as human.”

That changed, however, when he ended up at Dangaard’s ranch.

Dangaard has an unusual background himself. Originally from Australia, he moved to California in the 1970s to report on Hollywood gossip for Star magazine. When he was in his 40s, he reinvented himself as maker of custom saddles and a sort of beachy cowboy (complete with the hat and a horse). He still runs his saddle business today, and also works as a landlord, renting out the trailer and various back houses on his property.

Veloso has had different jobs in the past, including as a chef and in sales, but severe anxiety and depression make it hard for him to function.

“There was a time that I used to work in an office around the people and that’s something I can’t do anymore,” he said. “I get real anxious when I’m in big crowds and stuff like that, so I wouldn’t last very long.”

Through a social worker, Veloso acquired a Section 8 voucher, a rent subsidy for low-income people. Because of that, he was able to offer Dangaard $1,100 a month in rent if Dangaard could provide him with a proper living space.

“I think, well, this is a scam,” Dangaard recalled. “But I thought to myself, if it doesn’t work then I still have a place to rent anyhow. And maybe I’m helping a homeless person, wouldn’t that be nice? That’s one of my thoughts but it wasn’t my main driving thought, I’ll be honest about that.”

So over the course of a few months Dangaard renovated an old saddle storage space into a studio apartment for Veloso. After a few rounds of County inspections, it was finally move-in ready.

Today, the walls inside are covered with Veloso’s paintings. Rendered in dark, vivid colors, they’re surreal and slightly abstract looking portraits and patterns.

“Who knows,” said Dangaard, “He might be the next Picasso.”

For Veloso, this small space to live and paint has been a lifesaver. On the streets, he says, he became suicidal. Having a stable home allows him to keep up with the medications he takes for his mental health issues, organize appointments and generally find a semblance of order.

“When you’re out there, it’s like you’re always trying to survive,” he said. “You never have time to do these things. Homelessness does make you crazy.”

For Dangaard, the pleasure he got from helping a fellow citizen surprised him. “The joy of that was so wonderful,” he said. “It turns out I get more out of this than [Rigo] does, if you ask me.”

Los Angeles County officials are trying to get more people to do exactly what Dangaard’s done. They’re running a pilot program offering homeowners financial aid and construction help to build or fix up back houses and rent them to formerly homeless tenants with Section 8 vouchers.

The county’s program is tiny, however, with only enough funds to help six people. None of them have renters yet. The city is studying something similar, but that’s also only in the earliest stages.

Dangaard and Veloso may not represent the next big wave of homeless housing, but they do offer one small example of how this type of solution could work in a best case scenario: two men, chipping away at a huge crisis in their own small way.