THE BLOG

Ending Vet Homelessness in LA: Is the Finish Line in Sight?

02/04/2015 04:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

A casual observer might have thought last week that the problem of thousands of homeless veterans living on the streets of Los Angeles was just about behind us.

Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a record 3,375 veterans had been placed in housing in 2014 and reiterated his promise to actually eliminate the problem in the city by the end of this year.

The same day, VA Secretary Robert McDonald was in Los Angeles to applaud the mayor and announce he had engineered a settlement in the long-running, bitter law suit the ACLU and some veterans had filed against the VA demanding that the sprawling West L.A. VA campus house more homeless veterans.

U.S.VETS, which has been in business of housing homeless veterans in LA for more than 20 years and is now the largest nonprofit of its kind in the nation, welcomes the efforts of the mayor and the VA secretary.

But for those of us in the trenches -- U.S.VETS houses more than 1,000 veterans at our sites in Inglewood and Long Beach -- we know the battle is far from over.

The agreement between the VA and the ACLU is a significant breakthrough on an issue going back more than 20 years. The acres and acres of empty land and empty buildings at the campus seemed a tragically wasted resource when thousands of veterans were living on the streets.

In spite of the bureaucratic stalemate at the VA, community service providers like U.S.VETS and others have been responsible for reducing the number of homeless veterans living on the street by more than 75 percent over the last two decades.

Additional housing envisioned for homeless veterans at the West L.A. VA will be a welcome addition to the nearly 2,000 veteran specific housing units now offering homes to formerly homeless veterans in Los Angeles County.

But any new housing on the campus will not be ready by the end of this year when many government officials have pledged to end homelessness among veterans in Los Angeles.

This highlights a couple of critical points as we envision getting the last homeless veteran off the street: What do we do for the rest of the year to continue reducing the number of homeless veterans, and once we achieve that long sought after goal, how do we keep it that way?

The VA-ACLU settlement calls for the creation of a "written veteran homelessness strategy and action plan...carried out in coordination with local and Federal partners (and) community partners."

It is essential that the new master plan build upon and augment the robust services already available in Los Angeles and it should mandate a robust safety net that will quickly identify veterans who are in trouble and provide them with the services whether it be mental health counseling, employment assistance, or substance abuse treatment, that will prevent veterans from falling into homelessness in the future.

Whatever the master plan calls for, it will be just one part of a broader strategy that will house and provide services to homeless veterans.

Some successful strategies should be emulated: continue to strengthen the whole continuum of housing and services that includes intensive case management services to help veterans address the issues that caused their homelessness; increase access to services in geographically diverse locations, such as the new Veterans Service Center at Patriotic Hall in downtown; and the plan should take advantage of the kind of public-private partnerships that have created the current supply of permanent supportive housing.

We all hope that this is a new day for the VA in LA, avoiding the kind of bureaucratic paralysis that has stymied efforts in the past. The VA will need to appoint the "national expert on homelessness" called for in the document to act as veterans' homeless czar for Los Angeles answering primarily to the secretary.

There are multiple other details in the document that will have to be negotiated over the next months and years. Meanwhile, U.S.VETS will continue doing what it's been doing for more than 20 years, getting thousands of veterans off the street, housing them, and providing them the skills that will help them, as one of our vets said, "to bring back the man who once wore the military uniform with pride and honor."