VA details plan to eliminate veterans' homelessness

VA promises to open Westside campus for housing in plan to end homelessness among veterans by 2016

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs detailed its plan Friday to end veterans' homelessness in Los Angeles by 2016, pledging to open its West Los Angeles campus to permanent and temporary housing, and to place returning service members and their families in subsidized apartments throughout the county.

The VA's "action plan," developed as part of a legal settlement, will prioritize severely disabled, mentally ill and women veterans for housing in largely abandoned buildings on its sprawling 387-acre property.

The agency will also develop entertainment and recreation facilities to make it a "place people want to live," said attorney Gary Blasi of Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law, a civil rights group and part of the team that represented homeless veterans.

Veterans who choose to live elsewhere will receive services from strike teams of social workers, psychiatrists, housing and employment specialists and addiction counselors based on the VA's West Los Angeles and North Hills campuses, and in offices in West Covina, Hollywood, Watts, Whittier and Carson.

Veterans will live where they want, not where the VA sends them, and the goal will be reunification with family and friends, Blasi said.

"The idea is from the point of first contact … the [housing] process begins and in the meantime they're not turned back to the street, but basically given a place to stay either on campus or community," Blasi said.

The plan does not say how much money the VA will spend, or how many veterans it will house, but promises to "allocate available resources as needed." Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald, on a swing through Los Angeles last month to announce the settlement, said he was sending $50 million and 400 workers to the region.

"We've been told … we will have the resources and personnel to get the job done," said Mark Rosenbaum, the director of the Public Counsel Opportunity Under Law.

The plan also calls for the VA to hire an urban planning firm to draw up a master land use plan for the West Los Angeles property and appoint a special assistant reporting to McDonald to run the effort. The VA will conduct a homeless count in January to gauge its progress.

"This plan demonstrates what can be accomplished for our nation's veterans when we come together as a community — everyone working together toward the higher goal," McDonald said in a written statement.

The settlement resolved three years of litigation over the West Los Angeles campus, where the VA for decades had leased land for UCLA's baseball stadium, a hospital laundry and an exotic bird sanctuary while homeless veterans slept outside in bushes and dumpsters. A federal judge in 2013 declared the leases illegal. McDonald also pledged to develop an "exit strategy" for illegal leaseholders.

McDonald and Mayor Eric Garcetti have promised to solve Los Angeles' long-running homeless crisis. It's a daunting task; the county is home to the most homeless veterans in the country, estimated at 4,200 to 6,000. By contrast, New Orleans last month declared itself the first U.S. city to end veterans' homelessness by housing 227 people.

Homeless veterans in the Los Angeles Basin live in the tents on skid row and in remote desert encampments in the Antelope Valley, under freeway overpasses and hidden in brushy creek beds. Some have been outside for decades.

Years of failed promises have made them distrustful of the VA and other service providers. Landlords must be talked into accepting formerly homeless tenants at affordable rates in the midst of an explosion in rental prices.

Some elements of the plan — including reopening Building 209 on the West Los Angeles campus, and filling a state home for old soldiers — have been underway for years but will be stepped up. The VA promised to coordinate with the mayor's office, local nonprofits, charitable organizations and Home for Good, a business group.

Lawyers will monitor the plan on behalf of homeless veterans. Blasi said the process is designed to be transparent and inclusive, with monthly progress meetings open to the public.

Some advocates said they were cautiously optimistic the plan could succeed.

"The challenge for L.A. even if we end veteran homelessness is we're going to have to maintain sufficient resources so we're not just creating housing but maintaining housing," said Baylee Crone, executive director of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

"Can we end veteran homelessness in one year?" said Mike Neely, a commissioner with the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. "I honestly don't know, but if it provides us with the resources and system to be able serve homeless vets and their families I will be happy."

gale.holland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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