The Veterans Administration's agreement, announced Wednesday, to house more homeless vets at its West Los Angeles facility is a stunning turnabout and a huge win for veterans' advocates, who have been trying for years to persuade the agency to provide permanent housing on its grounds for troubled vets. The agreement — which will settle a lawsuit brought by a group of severely disabled homeless veterans — is not the end of the story, however. There are likely to be pitched battles in the months ahead over how the VA will use its land, how many veterans will be housed there and what will happen to the non-veteran-related businesses and activities on the site. Nevertheless, the agency's move will finally make the West L.A. campus an integral part of the solution, rather than a stumbling block to be overcome.
Los Angeles has the country's largest population of homeless veterans, but the VA has long resisted using its vast West L.A. campus to provide them anything beyond medical care and temporary housing. The most it's been willing to do is convert, at a glacial pace, up to three of the aging buildings on the site into temporary housing and treatment units. Meanwhile, the agency leased large chunks of the property to businesses and schools for uses that have nothing to do with veterans, including a commercial laundry and a baseball stadium for UCLA. Those leases eventually prompted the lawsuit, and in 2013, lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union convinced a federal judge that the VA had violated federal law.
Nevertheless, it took last year's arrival of a new VA secretary, Robert A. McDonald, to push the case toward the settlement announced Wednesday. It calls for the VA to develop by mid-February a strategy and action plan for homeless vets in the region that fundamentally shifts the approach at West L.A. Instead of insisting that vets undergo treatment for their illnesses and addictions before moving into long-term housing, the agency will put them into housing first — a model that's proved to be far more effective at getting the homeless off the streets. The VA also agreed to finalize a new master plan for the West L.A. campus by mid-October, paying particular attention to the needs of homeless vets for permanent supportive housing.
It's worth noting that the settlement also coincided with the arrival of a new director at the West L.A. facility, as well as a new county supervisor and congressman representing the region. The new strategy doesn't repudiate the VA's previous approach, which was to place homeless vets in rental units with supportive services. Instead, it accepts former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver's argument that the West L.A. campus should also provide housing and a livable community. Although many details remain to be worked out, the settlement is a heartening sign that the VA will finally put all its resources to use ending the shameful amount of homelessness among those it was created to protect.
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