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Activists Cautiously Optimistic over Federal Plan to Help Homeless Vets

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By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

August 12, 2013 -- Federal officials announced last week that they would step-up efforts to help homeless vets in Los Angeles County, but some activists remain wary.

Advocates for homeless vets have breathed a sigh of relief following an announcement last week by the office of Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), promising funds for programs designed to target the largest population of homeless vets in the country.

With few victories over many years of lobbying the VA in Los Angeles to build housing and improve outreach to the estimated 7,000 homeless vets in the area, some activists remain cautiously optimistic.

“I think what activists want is a sense of emergency,” said former Santa Monica City Councilmember Bobby Shriver. “It's not being treated as an emergency but it is an emergency.”

Shinseki said that, as part of the plan, the West L.A. VA will eventually include a comprehensive, “one-stop shop” homeless center and will expand initiatives like project 60, which targets the 60 most vulnerable and mentally ill homeless vets in order to get them into housing.

“There's all this talk and all these press releases,” Shriver said, but that he won't be happy until he starts seeing the work being done.

Shriver has been a long-time critic of what he considers the VA's sluggish approach to a critical problem. In 2011, Shriver was the driving force behind a lawsuit brought against the West L.A. VA by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The lawsuit alleged that the VA was misusing its 387-acre parcel -- the largest VA campus in the country -- by not building dedicated housing for vets returning from war since, the lawsuit contended, that's why the land was deeded to the VA more than a century earlier. (“Elected Officials React to ACLU Complaint Against VA,” June 15, 2011)

As part of last week's announcement, which came after Representative Henry Waxman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky met with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, the secretary committed to completing the long-awaited renovation of two buildings on the West L.A. campus that will house vets struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other war-related mental illness. (“VA Starts Long-Awaited Renovation of Housing Facility,” January 28)

The renovation project, which began on Building 209 in January, targets two buildings that have sat vacant for decades and had long been symbols for activists of the VA's inaction despite facing a growing homeless vet population as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggle to readjust to civilian life.

“Those buildings have been vacant for years,” said former L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, a Vietnam-era vet. Like Shriver, Rosendahl added his voice to a growing chorus of those discontent with the VA's slow-moving bureaucracy.

“What has happened after seven years, one building had enough money to be renovated,” Rosendahl said, referring to the fact that construction has only started on one the empty buildings.

That building, when completed, will house as many as 65 vets close to the medical and mental health services many of them need.

It's a good start but more needs to be done, Rosendahl said.

“They've gotta start making progress with numbers,” he said. “There needs to be substantially more housing on that property."

While he was heartened to hear the VA will commit more resources to the problem of veteran homelessness, Rosendahl said, “I'd like to know how much money they are talking about.

“There has to be a dramatic increase in Federal support,” he said.

There also needs to be improvements in the way the VA reaches out to homeless vets, activists say.

Shirver said that with many of L.A.'s most vulnerable vets suffering from severe mental illness, workers have to build relationships with the soldiers sleeping on the streets in order to gain their trust.

“That's why the housing is important,” he said. “Before they'll tell you anything, you have to have a relationship with (the vets).”

L.A. City Councilmember Mike Bonin thinks that's a job local officials can help with.

“One of the places where we can be helpful is to try to help do the outreach and make the connections to the local vets sleeping under the bridge or on the street,” said Bonin, who won Rosendahl's seat after Rosendahl stepped down last year.

Before winning Rosendahl's old seat, Bonin served as the councilmember's deputy chief-of-staff and was close to Rosendahl's work with homeless vets.

Shinseki also committed to increasing housing vouchers for vets in order to subsidize rents in private apartments.

But that's not an option for vets with severe mental illness, Shriver said, since they require significant support and can't always live in the larger community.

“It's a good step. It's a small step,” he said about the announcement. “Now that they know how to take steps, they should take big steps.

“It's too late for the people who have died in the dumpsters,” Shriver said, “but it's hopeful for the people who are coming back from Afghanistan now.”

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