By Olin Ericksen
April 3 -- Legislative action promised by a ranking
U.S. Congressman Monday could open a new front in a controversial
campaign to house a seemingly growing population of homeless
veterans near Santa Monica.
Congressman Bob Filner (D-San Diego), Chairman of the U.S
. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told The Lookout
Monday that he will push Federal officials to use three West
Los Angeles Veterans Administration buildings to treat and
house homeless veterans.
The move comes after Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary
James Nicholson has failed to act on the two-year-old proposal,
despite pressure from some Southern California elected officials
to restrict use on the site to help the County's estimated
22,000 homeless veterans.
|From left: Council member
Bobby Shriver, Congresswoman Jane Harman and Congressman
Bob Filner. (Photo by Olin Ericksen)
"When I get back to Washington, the first thing I'm
going to ask Secretary Nicholson if they will (reclassify
the buildings) administratively," Filner said after an
emotional West Los Angeles forum packed with veterans demanding
"If they don't,” he said, “then we'll draft
legislation, and it's as simple as that."
Political support for the plan could be building in the wake
of growing scandals over the treatment of patients at the
VA's faltering flagship center in Washington D.C. and an alarming
trend of younger veterans ending up on the streets.
Filner said that while turning the buildings over to private
companies is still an option for Nicholson, a 2004 Bush Administration
appointee, he and his Democratic colleagues in a new majority
in Congress will fight to restrict their use for veterans,
especially those on the streets.
"We are worried there is a chance that the buildings
could be used by private companies, but we're not going to
let that happen," he said. "We have a facility,
and it is going to be used for veterans."
Publicly he told the crowd that served in American conflicts
ranging from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, that he
will do "whatever it takes" to support the lease
change to help scores of homeless veterans in the area.
While nearby homeowners in Brentwood have been vocally critical
of the plan, Santa Monica Council member Bobby Shriver --
who has worked extensively for the project and taken several
trips to Washington D.C., including one on March 26 -- hopes
Filner's presence and words will jump-start the languishing
"For him to get out here and see the buildings, to meet
the officials of the Westside Veterans Administration, it
says to me he looks forward to trying to help us and it is
a big step," said Shriver, a two-year council member
who has adopted homelessness as a key issue.
Shriver sat next to U.S. Congresswoman Jane Harman, who chaired
the hour-long question and answer session that saw intermittent
shouts of "it's a shame" hurled at the panel as
it tried to address larger concerns about resources and management
at the strained Veteran facilities in Westwood.
|Crowd at veterans forum
Filner's public remarks and Harman's presence gave Shriver
hope other Congressional California Representatives, such
as U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman, and U.S. Senators Diane
Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, would also weigh in on the issue.
"I feel like we are making progress with federal officials,"
he said after the meeting. "I think if (Nicholson) sees
a united front of political leadership here for the homeless
vets, he will act."
Whether there are more veterans living on the streets of
Los Angeles County or fewer is a source of some debate.
Greater Los Angeles is thought to contain 11 percent of all
200,000 homeless veterans nationwide, according to VA statistics
cited by the veteran homeless service non-profit, New Directions.
LA County is believed to harbor one of the largest homeless
veteran populations in the nation, representing 25 percent
of the 90,000 individuals who sleep on the county’s
streets and shelters each night.
In Santa Monica, homeless veterans are thought to account
for 10 percent of the city’s estimated 2,800 homeless
individuals, according to study results from consultants at
the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
The National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and
Clients estimates that 23 percent of the nation’s estimated
750,000 homeless are veterans.
While veterans seem to account for a small segment of Santa
Monica’s homeless population, Shriver said this issue
is still vital one.
"Homelessness is a regional issue, and the more vets
who are sleeping on the beach or stuck sleeping in Skid Row,
if they sleep and get medical attention at the VA, that's
a regional issue," he said.