Los Angeles County holds the unwelcome distinction of having the most homeless veterans in the country — 6,000 to 8,000, depending on whose estimate you use. That number has remained stubbornly, embarrassingly high despite the presence of a sprawling Veterans Administration campus in West Los Angeles, not to mention other VA facilities throughout the county.
This month, the agency announced that it had hired Arcadia-based Westport Construction Inc. to renovate one of the underused buildings on the West L.A. campus to create a therapeutic housing complex for 65 chronically homeless veterans. Ordinarily, such news would be cause for celebration. In this case, however, the prospect of moving ahead is tempered by the reminder of how long it takes the agency to do so little, despite the enormity of the problem.
The structure in question, Building 209, is one of three that then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson designated for homeless veterans 5 1/2 years ago. Current Secretary Eric K. Shinseki pledged $20 million to renovate Building 209 in June 2010, but he didn't ask Congress to let the agency spend the money until the following year. Another year passed before it hired Westport. Meanwhile, there's been no visible progress on the other two buildings supposedly reserved for homeless vets.
This sort of slow-rolling exemplifies much of the local VA's work on homelessness. Project 60, the agency's experimental effort to find permanent supportive housing for 60 of the most troubled homeless vets, succeeded largely because of the efforts of Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's office and a team of nonprofits to bring in participants, place them in federally subsidized housing and provide mental health services. The agency collected enough housing vouchers to expand the program dramatically and take more than 1,000 homeless veterans off the streets, but the money has been tied up for months in a contracting dispute. Meanwhile, the agency has struggled to steer homeless veterans to the services that are available because it hasn't hired enough case managers.
Another problem, housing advocates say, is the local VA's adherence to outdated therapeutic regimes. County officials shifted their focus years ago to a housing-first model that provides the homeless a permanent place to live, then treats their addictions and mental health problems. The local VA has stayed with an approach that puts vets in temporary housing while they try to become sober and employable. Building 209 is slated to provide transitional housing, not permanent residences, along with mental and occupational health therapies.
Local officials ran out of patience with the VA long ago. The region's representatives in Washington should too, and start using the tools at their disposal to speed the conversion of underused buildings on the West L.A. campus and the placement of vets in permanent supportive housing across the county. As should be clear by now, if the VA is allowed to set the pace of progress, there will be precious little of it.