L.A. County leaders make a plea to feds in push to keep funds for homeless veterans

Officials at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs decided in September to put local VA officials in charge of $264 million that had previously been set aside for specific programs to help homeless veterans.

VA officials in Washington say the directive will help the agency’s medical directors around the country respond to the changing needs of veterans as it seeks to improve medical care and prevent suicides.

But the shift has generated concern among L.A. County officials, who say it could result in about $34 million being diverted from paying case managers who help homeless veterans find permanent housing to fund other programs at the West L.A. VA Medical Center.

If that happens, they say, it could make the county’s already severe veteran homelessness problem even worse.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved a motion Tuesday to send a letter signed by all five supervisors to VA Secretary David Shulkin, the Senate and House leadership and local VA medical centers asking that the VA reverse its decision.

Authored by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Janice Hahn, the motion also authorized the board to send a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Vito Imbasciani, California’s secretary of veterans affairs, urging action “to protect funding for supportive services for homeless and formerly homeless veterans.”

The $34 million allotted to L.A. County has paid case managers in a voucher program that experts say has been central to helping homeless veterans find permanent housing.

The program, which began in 2008, provides housing vouchers and services to help homeless veterans and their families find permanent housing. Its case managers also offer veterans mental health treatment and counseling for substance abuse and guide them through the process of finding housing.

Since it started, more than 6,700 veterans in L.A. County have found permanent housing through the program.

Kuehl said she is concerned that the move could lead to fewer trained caseworkers for the voucher program.

“Finding housing for veterans without the help of case managers is insufficient,” Kuehl said, adding that the homelessness problem is so severe, “we need the VA’s help in making sure that they get off the streets.”

In a Nov. 9 letter to Shulkin, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said case managers were essential in helping homeless veterans retain permanent housing.

VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said the move would give VA officials in Los Angeles freedom to invest in other programs that address immediate needs that might arise, and added that doing so wouldn’t affect the homeless veteran population that the VA serves.

“VA remains committed to making sure that veterans who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness have a home,” Cashour said in a statement.

About 4,800 veterans live on the streets or in shelters in L.A. County — a 57% increase from last year — according to the 2017 count conducted by the L.A. Homeless Services Authority.

An estimated 5,000 veterans are currently housed and receiving services using the voucher program throughout L.A. County.

melissa.etehad@latimes.com

Twitter: @melissaetehad

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