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A New Deal for L.A.’s Homeless Veterans

John Seeley: Housing plan for the West Los Angeles V.A. property would help, but some say it doesn’t go far enough.
A New Deal for L.A.’s Homeless Veterans—John Seeley

A New Deal for L.A.’s Homeless Veterans—John Seeley

Housing plan for the West Los Angeles V.A. property would help, but some say it doesn’t go far enough

Homeless vets have won a minor victory, getting promises of permanent housing with supportive services in
the new Master Plan for the VA's long-underused Westwood-Brentwood campus, but it's a win small in scope, unclear as to timing, and dependent on monies that have not yet been appropriated, and may rely on private sector investment.

The "victory," a proposal for 700 to 900 units of housing will be (sometime in the next five years) a helpful haven for some, but still leaves thousands of vets victimized by a VA that won't recognize the mandate embodied in the deed to the vast property to operate a disabled soldiers home. And behind that a Congress that has billions to send young men and women to war, but can't seem to find serious money to help those who return from these adventures damaged in body, mind or spirit.

The window is about to close for public input on the new master plan for the 387-acre property alongside the 405 . Public comments will be accepted until Monday, December 7, for consideration before the plan is finalized by the V.A. in late January. Comments will be printed in the Federal Register.

Priority for long-term housing would go to veterans who are severely disabled, chronically homeless, of advanced age or to struggling, traumatized women vets — especially those with children.

At more than 300 pages, the master plan is not light reading. But the bottom line includes the creation of new housing for veterans in two “neighborhood” north of Wilshire Boulevard. One close to Wilshire would provide short-term transitional housing for vets needed care for up to two years. The other, further north, would include 700 to 900 units of permanent supportive housing for those in need of prolonged medical and supportive services.

Priority for long-term housing would go to veterans who are severely disabled, chronically homeless, of advanced age or to struggling, traumatized women vets — especially those with children.

The north end of campus would also include a recreation and fitness area, while land south of Wilshire by the hospital would remain focused on medical services.

The fresh look at the V.A.’s long-neglected property springs from 2011 litigation filed by veterans seeking to reclaim it as a “permanent home” for disabled soldiers, as designated by the 1888 deed transfer from a land-grant heiress and her husband to the US government. and then enjoyed by heroes of Gettysburg and Bull Run and their successors until about 1970. The plaintiffs were also indignant that acreage intended for veterans was being leased for laundries, car rental lots, and UCLA’s baseball stadium.

Though assisted by the ACLU and high-power private attorneys pro bono, the veteran plaintiffs did not prevail on their central claim. US Judge James Otero ruled in 2012 that the deed by itself was insufficient to compel provision of the promised permanent "home," since Congress never passed legislation to that purpose. Oddly, on the other hand, Otero ruled that the commercial leases were a violation of the deed terms and should be terminated. Amidst this legal impasse, Christmastime conversations between plaintiff attorney Ron Olson and the new V.A. Secretary Robert McDonald jelled into a January 2015 settlement to collaborate on a new master plan to improve care and services for homeless veterans.

The nonprofit Vets Advocacy Inc. and WeAreTheMighty.com conducted an online survey of more than 1,200 veterans, caregivers, and active duty military personnel in which 69% of respondents favored neighborhood-style living on the campus. There was also broad support for not only traditional services like benefits assistance and vocational training, but also amenities such as child care, a pool and a gym.

The feedback shows that “we need to develop a vibrant and welcoming community,” said Vets Advocacy Inc. leader Dr. Jonathan Sherin, a former Westwood VA Hospital psychiatrist and executive vice president and chief medical officer for Volunteers of America.

While the new plan aims to assist homeless veterans, it’s unclear exactly how many would be helped and how soon.

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L.A. County has the largest number of homeless veterans in America, something Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed in pledging to end veteran homelessness in 2015 —a deadline he recently revised to mid-2016.

While more than 7,000 veterans countywide have been housed since 2013, a count earlier this year found more than 4,300 veterans still homeless — a net reduction of only 6%, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

For every 100 veterans housed, LAHSA data suggests, 94 others become homeless. However, what proportion of homeless vets are newly demobilized Iraq or Afghanistan veterans or are veterans of prior wars remains unclear.

One expert who scrutinized figures in the master plan says the creation of 700 to 900 housing units is based on flawed assumptions about the total veteran population, as evidenced by a recent RAND Corp. study that offers a higher estimate that takes into account interstate migration of struggling vets to Southern California.

Many veterans find the housing proposals inadequate. Marine Corps Vietnam veteran Francisco Juarez, chairman of the state land-use committee for AMVETS, sees less than maximum housing units as a violation of the “sacred trust” dedicating the property as a permanent home for wounded vets. John Aaron, a Brentwood Air Force vet, called the December 7 comment closing day (also Pearl Harbor’s anniversary) “another Day of Infamy.”

Others are skeptical on the more pragmatic grounds that VA projects take too long to complete and rarely deliver the promised goods. Often cited is the 396-bed Cal Vet building, dedicated in 2010 but still less than half-full because of missing kitchen facilities, an absurd fiasco of state-federal non-coordination LA Times columnist Steve Lopez has treated at length.

But veterans are not the only stakeholders in the ongoing discussion. The numbers of veterans housed onsite can be an issue for L.A.’s civilian homeless population and for the Brentwood neighbors of the property.

While some Brentwood residents have sometimes expressed misgivings about swelling the nearby veteran population, non-veteran homeless would improve their own chances of finding housing if the V.A. houses homeless vets rather than sending them out with housing vouchers to compete for the few affordable units that exist in L.A.’s tight rental market.

At a Homeless-to-Housed Veterans Stand Down in early November, hundreds of vets were eligible for immediate for federal housing assistance vouchers, according to the mayor’s office.

But veterans say there are few affordable spots in Los Angeles, even fewer landlords willing to accept the vouchers. Moreover, if they do find housing, that’s just one fewer spot for an un-uniformed "veteran" of domestic abuse, industrial accident or other civilian disaster.

Shouldn't the military take care of its own? Vets, their relatives, friends, caregivers, and even civilians or pacifists can put a word in:

To comment on the master plan, visit vatherightway.com.

Enjoy the view.

Michael Seeley