Homelessness in Los Angeles was on the decline over the last two years, even in the teeth of the recession -- but at the same time, homelessness among veterans has shot up 24 percent since 2009, according to a report the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority released Tuesday.
That statistic, based on a count conducted in January, could provide ammo for organizations suing the Department of Veterans Affairs over the lack of supportive housing in the county.
"This data really confirms the theory of our case," said ACLU staff attorney David Sapp. "What the VA is currently making available is not working."
The VA of Greater Los Angeles said it could not confirm the Homeless Services Authority's estimate. According to the VA Northeast Program Evaluation Center, the number of homeless veterans served in the L.A. area went up from 6,397 in Fiscal Year 2009 to 6,641 in Fiscal Year 2010.
Michelle Wildy, the chief of community care for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, said that rise in services used at the VA may have occurred because "outreach has become more efficient."
Wildy pointed to a "streamlined" process for treating homeless veterans, and case management strategies that seek to "meet the people where they're at." But critics say that's not enough, pointing in particular to the study's finding that the number of chronically homeless veterans jumped over the last two years.
The county has an estimated 8,131 vets without a place to call their own -- up 24 percent since 2009. Of those homeless veterans, a full 31 percent are chronically homeless, meaning in most cases they haven't had housing for over a year.
The chronically homeless have burned through their social safety net of friends and family. Physical or mental disability--along with addiction--often contributes to their plight.
The ACLU and other organizations suing the Veterans Administration say those chronically homeless ex-soldiers would benefit the most from supportive housing on the VA's West Los Angeles campus, a disputed 387-acre plot of land on the city's affluent west side that was originally deeded to the federal government specifically to provide housing for disabled veterans.
VA officials, however, disputed the notion that space on the West L.A. campus provided under a "housing first" rubric -- which would not require those suffering from addiction to stay sober for housing -- would be appropriate for the land.
"If we're housing people on federal property, you can't have alcohol," Wildy said.
Wildy prefers an approach that uses vouchers to place veterans in off-campus apartments. "We don't need to institutionalize people, because that's what we would be doing if we put them in one place," she explained. She said additional vouchers would be available for Los Angeles veterans this year.
And while critics have pointed to several decaying buildings on the West L.A. campus as potential sites for expanded housing, the VA disputed that suggestion.
"We're not talking about an abandoned apartment building or something like that," said Dave Bayard, the VA's regional director of public relations. "We're talking about a building that's maybe 60 years old, invested with vermin, may have asbestos."
"These are not places where someone could live, they're not safe seismically, they're not safe environmentally," he added.
Even while the dispute over the West L.A. space simmers, the larger effort in the city and county against homelessness appears to be making some progress. The results of the Homeless Services Authority count suggest an overall 3% decrease in homelessness in the county and a 9% decrease in the city. Advocates cautioned that those numbers are only estimates, and that they were within the count's margin of error.
Veterans of the armed services, however, are doing worse: 18 percent of the homeless in the county are veterans, up 3% since 2009.
Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor and co-counsel in the suit against the VA, said the rise among veteran homelessness in the midst of a general decline is "exceptional."
"There's a bimodal thing happening," Blasi suggested. "Vietnam vets are aging and getting worse off, so there's a spike in those who are becoming chronically homeless, and then the big jump is in the current era vets" -- in other words, those who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Blasi said he was particularly concerned that the number of homeless women vets had shot up 51 percent over two years. "Women are just in a lot more danger than they were in previous eras, including danger from their male colleagues," he said.
Nationally, the VA has estimated the number of homeless veterans at 75,600 on any given night, down from 131,000 two years ago.
But Blasi believes the rise in Los Angeles is probably part of a larger national trend.
"The only things I can think of accounting for these changes are national changes," he said. "People haven't taken a greater or lesser liking to Los Angeles."