To meet L.A. veteran housing goals, governments go into action mode

VA officials cite progress in efforts to get L.A.'s homeless veterans off the streets

After decades of neglect of L.A.'s homeless veterans, federal, state and local officials are pulling together to try to get them off the street by the end of the year.

In a groundbreaking legal settlement, U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald in January promised to open the agency's long-contested West Los Angeles campus to homeless housing as part of a broader campaign to end the county's long, dubious reign as the nation's homeless-veteran capital.

At City Hall, Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to ensure that every veteran in Los Angeles has a place to live by 2016. And in February, housing officials in Sacramento released the first $75 million of a $600-million bond issue, authorized by California voters through Proposition 41 in 2014, to fund housing for low-income and homeless veterans.

The multi-governmental efforts dovetail with the Obama administration's vow to end veteran homelessness nationwide this year. Reaching the finish line in Los Angeles will be tough: The county counted 4,200 homeless veterans during 2013's official tabulation, more than twice the number in New York City. Some of these veterans have lived outdoors for years.

But the national goal cannot be reached without Los Angeles, which explains the big push. At a town hall meeting Friday, VA officials and lawyers will deliver a progress report on their efforts and call for community response and suggestions.

Here is where some parts of the campaign stand:

Housing numbers: Home for Good, the local public-private homeless service partnership, estimates that more than 6,000 homeless veterans must be housed this year to reach "functional zero." Home for Good Director Christine Marge said that doesn't mean veterans will never land in the streets. But if they do, the system will be able to rapidly rehouse them.

In the latest monthly tally, 262 homeless veterans were housed, short of the 604 it would take to be on track for the year-end goal. The city got 158 veterans into homes, short of its monthly goal of 282.

Marge blamed a staffing shortage in the VA, and she and other officials said they expect to make up the shortfall as the VA's initiative accelerates over the the year.

Vincent Kane, McDonald's special assistant heading up the local VA effort, said the agency had added 95 positions for homeless programs and is expecting 27 additional hires when the next batch of veteran rent vouchers is released.

As more veterans come in off the streets, those that remain are harder to place, with greater and more specialized needs, Marge said.

Money: Garcetti was an early Obama supporter in the 2008 election, and he has reaped the benefits in millions of dollars in homeless aid from the administration. The city's Housing Authority was awarded almost $13 million in federal funds at the end of January. This month, $30 million was awarded to agencies in the Los Angeles area to house homeless veterans and their families.

Half of the state's $600-million veteran housing bond fund is for homeless vets. Los Angeles is expected to get a big share of the money, if not in the first, $75-million round, then in the next, officials said.

West Los Angeles campus plan: The VA has opened bidding for a master land-use plan to develop its 388-acre campus as a "veteran-centric" haven of permanent and temporary housing. The master plan represents a dramatic turnaround for the VA, which with the backing of Westside politicians fought permanent housing on the Brentwood-adjacent stretch of rolling greens and derelict buildings for years.

The bid document calls for developing 150 permanent homes for veterans, with an emphasis on the sick and disabled from the Vietnam War era and on female veterans and their children. The housing comes with mental health assistance, addiction counseling, case management and employment services. Officials also plan on establishing "bridge housing" so veterans can come off the streets right away while they await permanent housing.

Recreational development such as sports facilities, a bowling alley or cafe, is also anticipated to make the campus a real community, bid specifications say.

Lease exit strategy: A federal judge in 2013 found that the VA had illegally leased parts of its West Los Angeles campus to two dozen commercial interests and nonprofits that had no connection to veterans, including an exotic-bird sanctuary, a bus parking concession and a city dog run.

A hotel laundry service and a storage lot for sets used in television programs have already left the property, and construction of an amphitheater was shut down. Other leaseholders on notice that they have to go include the private Brentwood School, whose pool, tennis courts and baseball diamond occupy a 20-acre corner of the property.

An exception may be Jackie Robinson Stadium, home to UCLA's baseball team. The university could work out a deal to stay on the campus by offering stepped-up medical or other veteran services.

Twitter: @geholland

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