“Nobody who serves, nobody who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their heads when they come back home,” President Obama said as he kicked off his 2012 campaign. And he pointed to his administration’s work for veterans. That claim may work elsewhere, but not in L.A., Mr. President.
Every time the president’s helicopter lands on the Veterans Affairs grounds in West Los Angeles, he is setting down at the center of his policy failure. Three years into his administration, the Los Angeles area has the highest reported number of homeless vets in the nation. There are empty buildings, 100 feet from where his chopper lands, on that VA campus that can and should be used for veterans’ care.
Here are the horrible facts:
According to the latest count by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles County dropped by 3% between 2009 and 2011. The numbers declined for all groups except one: veterans. There were 9,000 homeless veterans here in 2011, a 24% increase over 2009. And the number of chronically homeless veterans — individuals who are homeless because of severe mental disabilities — increased by more than 100%, from 1,243 to 2,520.
And more are coming. California’s Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in 2009 that 28,000 vets would return from Iraq and Afghanistan per year during this administration.
What should we conclude from these facts? At a minimum, the administration’s programs are not, in fact, helping the most vulnerable homeless veterans. At worst, the administration may have decided that the Los Angeles problem is too difficult; that there are easier “wins” elsewhere.
This is a long-term problem. Local leaders have been advocating for change for almost eight years on this issue. I wrote letters to federal elected officials, traveled to Washington to meet them, invited them to meet in Los Angeles and more. Our efforts could not produce one new bed for chronically homeless soldiers on the nearly 400-acre VA property in West L.A. Not one. This despite the fact that private donors gave this land to the United States for veterans’ care.
A group of prominent lawyers got tired of waiting. In June 2011, Ron Olson, professor Gary Blasi of UCLA, professor Laurence Tribe of Harvard, the firm Arnold and Porter and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Veterans Affairs for its failure to provide adequate housing and mental health services for homeless vets in Los Angeles. Incredibly, Obama’s Justice Department argued in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles that the VA has no obligation to provide veterans such housing and services — services to which they are entitled by law.
Who are the plaintiffs? One is a war hero with numerous ribbons for his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has yet to receive treatment for his severe post-traumatic stress syndrome because he lacks stable, permanent housing. He fends for himself, sleeping in alleys and on sidewalks all over L.A.
Another of the plaintiffs, who also served in Iraq and was decorated for his service, went on a rampage and destroyed his parents’ living room. Why? Because the VA has no stable living quarters where he could receive the support his mental condition demands.
Today, large portions of the VA campus in Westwood sit unused with empty buildings, some of which were originally constructed for veterans with mental disabilities. Our federal leaders have been studying and assessing these empty buildings for more than 20 years.
In the meantime, the VA leases parts of this property for use by UCLA’s baseball team, a dog park, a nine-hole public golf course, an exclusive private school’s athletic facilities, a rental car agency and other for-profit businesses.
The president cannot continue to use his administration’s efforts for veterans as campaign applause lines. He instead must insist that the VA once and for all ensure that homeless veterans with severe disabilities — in Los Angeles and across the nation — have access to stable housing linked with appropriate supportive services. Study after study has proved that this approach is not only effective, it also costs the VA far less than the consequences of not taking care of homeless and mentally ill vets.
This is Obama’s rhetoric: “This country will care for our veterans and serve our veterans as well as they’ve served us.” Fine words. But the time for words has passed. It’s time for action.
Bobby Shriver, the co-founder of ONE.org and (RED), is a member of the Santa Monica City Council.