VA unveils new plan to house homeless Los Angeles veterans, Falls Flat with advocacy groups

On November 1, the Veterans Affairs Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department teamed up to move approximately 40 homeless veterans living along a sidewalk to the property of the West Los Angeles Veterans Campus, just next to their old encampment known as Veterans Row. .

At the time, VA Secretary Denis McDonough pledged to house another 500 homeless vets in the city by December 31. The department succeeded, finding refuge for 667 veterans in a city with more than 3,600 homeless vets, or about 10% of the entire country. homeless former military population.

“Once in a while you come across these phrases in English that really shouldn’t exist. I think one of those phrases is ‘homeless veteran,'” McDonough said at a press conference in November. “As long as I’m here, I’m going to do everything I can to get them into homes.”

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But after years of delays, advocates question whether the VA is committed to finding a solution to homelessness and have raised concerns about the use of the department’s large lot in Los Angeles. Sections of this property are currently leased by a local private school and university, and part of the land would be set aside for development under the VA’s new framework to address homelessness in the area.

The VA on Friday unveiled what it called the West LA VA Campus Master Plan, a roadmap to ensure all homeless veterans in the area have permanent shelter and access to services. such as VA health care, benefits and support programs.

Building on a project unveiled in 2016, the 2022 Master Plan provides for the construction of approximately 1,000 housing units over the next six years, with the intention of eventually having 1,200.

It also calls for the construction of a town square; buildings that will provide amenities for veterans, such as a wellness center with career and support services; and parking lots, walking paths and bike paths.

In this new village, formerly homeless veterans will have access to mental and physical health care and numerous services, according to VA officials, who added that the initiative could be a model for other cities.

“LA is the epicenter of homelessness, and as LA goes away, the whole nation goes away,” said Keith Harris, VA’s senior roaming officer for greater Los Angeles, during of a call to the press on Friday. “Los Angeles has…alarmingly nearly one-fifth of all homeless veterans homeless [in the country]. So we are committed to drastically reducing those numbers and providing those veterans with a place to call home. »

Still, veterans and advocacy groups are unhappy with the overall plan, which they say ignored feedback from veterans and amounts to an inappropriate use of what was originally 700 acres, given in 1887 to be “permanently maintained as a national home for disabled veterans, especially the unemployed”. Veterans.”

In a three-page letter published Friday, Dick Southern, director of the Vietnam Veterans of America chapter in the area, called the master plan a community plan that would convert the land to public parks, thoroughfares, affordable mixed-use housing, retail business. and four subway stations, in addition to providing space for drug research centers and entertainment venues – “while indefinitely delaying housing for dying disabled veterans in the best areas of Los Angeles”.

“Vietnam Veterans of America has never officially supported a master or community plan to privately redevelop the [West LA] VA Soldiers Home,” Southern wrote, referring to the area’s original name.

Currently, of those acres left to house veterans, a few hundred elderly veterans live in the state-run California Veterans Home, while the federal government leases 10 acres of the property to UCLA for a baseball field. ; a company drills oil on the land; and 22 acres are leased to a private school which has built a sports complex, according to a report earlier this month from CNN.

“It’s really disgusting to see,” Rob Reynolds, an Iraq War veteran who now advocates for homeless veterans in Los Angeles, told CNN. “When you see people who raise their right hands to serve our country sleeping and dying on the streets, and you have one of the most elite private schools in the country charging $40,000 a year per student, and that they have immaculate equipment and that the veterans are living in misery, it makes no sense.”

The VA says the blueprint will provide homeless veterans with the services and shelter they need through partnerships with developers as well as rental agreements, which help cover costs.

Dr. Steven Braverman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said on Friday’s call with reporters that by law the VA is not allowed to build housing “unless they be specifically tied to a treatment program” and should “rely on core developer and community assets.”

A reporter on the call asked VA officials to cite the law, but they were unable to do so, adding only that in the 1950s a home program for veterans was “cancelled by Congress and the only authorities for the use of funding were housing in support of direct care activities.

As officials decided to end the call after the question, attorney Ryan Thompson of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers Coalition stepped in to accuse the AV of lying.

“I’m absolutely disgusted, like so many veterans and members of the public, that you continually lie about laws that don’t exist,” Thompson said.

Earlier in the press conference, Braverman agreed that the optics of beautiful facilities like Brentwood Private School and UCLA land on property where veterans have been promised housing has a “real impact and visceral about veterans and advocates,” but, he added, “tenants are not the reason we haven’t produced housing.”

“If we could fix the barriers to housing,” Braverman said, referring to the delays the VA has faced with the project, including lengthy environmental impact assessments, historic preservation reviews, curtailment requirements and funding challenges from developers, “we could build all the units we’ve promised without leases coming into play.”

VA officials said that by the end of 2022, the region will have 235 “permanent housing beds” for veterans and another 315 by the end of 2024.

— Patricia Kime can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

Related: Number of Veterans Living in Homeless Shelters Has Decreased During Pandemic, Report Says

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