For years, the effort to establish housing for chronically homeless veterans on the VA's sprawling West Los Angeles campus has been painfully, shamefully slow, as mistrust and inertia have impeded progress at the same time that two wars have dramatically increased the need for action. Finally, there may be a chance for a breakthrough. A new piece of legislation, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would clear the way for the Department of Veterans Affairs to enter into long-term lease agreements with developers and service providers to transform two vacant structures, known as Buildings 205 and 208, into housing with therapeutic services. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House.
It's disturbing that anyone is homeless in the United States, and it's particularly disgraceful — as Feinstein noted in a statement — that so many military service veterans are homeless. An estimated 6,300 live in Los Angeles County, the largest concentration of homeless veterans in the country. The VA has said for years that it would renovate three buildings on its grounds to house the homeless. Work is currently underway on just one, Building 209.
This new legislation would jump-start the process for the other two buildings. The VA is forbidden to offer extended commercial leases on its 387-acre property, but Feinstein's bill would allow it to forge a long-term partnership with a private developer who could obtain financing and do the necessary renovation in a timely fashion. "You get the same building at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the property and who worked with Feinstein and Waxman to conceive the legislation. Once the buildings are renovated, the VA can bring in private organizations that specialize in working with the homeless to run programs.
The buildings would offer long-term housing with intensive services for the most troubled, chronically homeless vets — those with mental illnesses, substance abuse problems or physical disabilities, and sometimes two or more of those problems. Residents could get physical and mental health care and treatment for substance abuse provided by teams of professionals working together in one location. They would also get assistance in securing disability benefits, managing their money and developing the daily living skills that slipped away as their lives disintegrated.
Residents might stay a year or longer, with the goal of becoming stable enough to move on to some level of permanent housing — perhaps including support services — and to be re-integrated into the community. Each building could house about 60 or 65 veterans. That's less than 200 total, a tiny fraction of the number of homeless vets who need housing, but a potentially lifesaving opportunity for those who are able to secure a place there. Of course, whenever residents transition out of this housing, rooms would be freed up for other veterans to move in.
This is a solid, long-overdue plan for a Department of Veterans Affairs with an abysmal record of providing housing for its homeless veterans. And it's not that the department isn't capable of it. Another permanent supportive housing project for homeless veterans with mental or traumatic stress disorders opened last September on VA property in the San Fernando Valley.
All this progress is promising, but the VA isn't done yet. It's appealing a court ruling last August that struck down some lease arrangements that it maintained on the West L.A. property, contending that the income from the leases was used for programs for veterans. The lawsuit that led to the court decision was brought by a group of disabled homeless veterans and the Vietnam Veterans of America. The plaintiffs' goal was more to compel the VA to offer long-term housing to homeless veterans than to kick out non-veteran tenants. Getting Buildings 205 and 208 renovated and finishing the work on Building 209 will help accomplish that worthy goal. The VA doesn't have to house every homeless veteran on the West Los Angeles campus, but it should consider repurposing other vacant buildings or constructing new ones to house more.