On the sprawling West L.A. campus of the Department of Veterans Affairs rises a stately, pale yellow building known by the nondescript name Building 209. Inside, fans hang from high ceilings, walls gleam with new paint, and windows look out on the bucolic grounds, offering glimpses of hills in the distance. Nowhere in sight are the streets that the building's new occupants once lived on but, hopefully, will not return to.
The VA officially opened Building 209 on Thursday to provide long-term therapeutic housing and other services to 65 formerly chronically homeless veterans — 20 of them women — who have struggled with mental problems or addictions or a combination. Of course, this is just a fraction of the housing needed by the more than 4,300 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County. And as great as it is to see this once vacant building transformed into an inviting residence with state-of-the-art amenities, it took a decade — beginning with former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver's lobbying for revitalizing that building and others — for the project to go from idea to authorization to funding to renovation to completion.
That glacial pace was once the hallmark of everything the VA did. But in recent months VA officials have shown a promising and significant shift in attitude, expressing a sense of urgency about providing housing and services to homeless veterans on the West L.A. campus and beyond. Six months after taking the cabinet post in July 2014, new VA Secretary Robert McDonald settled a long-standing lawsuit over leases to outside interests on the campus, which was intended only to serve the needs of veterans. Later this month, the VA will announce the launch of the master plan process that will revamp the campus, with veteran and community input, to make it more veteran-centered.
The agency must keep up that pace, particularly when it comes to housing homeless veterans — and Los Angeles County has the largest homeless veteran population in the country.
Neither the VA nor veterans' advocates involved in developing the master plan believe that the campus can or should house all of them. However, the 387-acre campus can accommodate more than 65 homeless veterans. The VA agrees and says it will prioritize housing female vets who have experienced trauma and aging vets who need medical services.
The VA also supports legislation to allow permanent supportive housing on the campus, to target particularly needy homeless veterans. The campus has the underutilized buildings, counseling services and medical facilities to offer chronically homeless vets the new start they need to get off the streets. Even if that means housing vets for indefinite periods of time, the VA should do it.