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Michelle Obama urges mayors to remove 'stain' of veteran homelessness and praises L.A. efforts

By Sarah D. Wire | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 22, 2016

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — First Lady Michelle Obama urged the nation's mayors Thursday to redouble efforts to ease homelessness among military veterans in a speech that both highlighted progress and underscored the magnitude of the problem.

Obama, speaking at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, said it was "an absolute outrage" that veterans were sleeping on the nation’s streets.

"It is a horrifying stain on our nation, particularly when you think about all that these men and women have done for our country,” she said.

The first lady lauded the city of Los Angeles for finding homes for more than 5,500 of the 7,000 veterans estimated to be on the streets as of January 2015, and for developing mental health and job placement services to keep them housed.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office has said it would be early spring before the remaining L.A. homeless veterans could be placed in homes.

In 2014, Garcetti joined the leaders of dozens of cities in California and across the country in accepting the Obama administration's challenge to end veteran homelessness by the end of 2015.

Houston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and the state of Virginia are among cities and states that reached “functional zero,” the point at which veterans who become homeless are quickly identified and helped. Los Angeles is still trying to get to that point.

Garcetti and Obama encouraged the assembled mayors to continue working.

“We can win this war. We can fulfill this mission. I have seen it in Los Angeles,” Garcetti said.

To get veterans off the streets, Garcetti said Los Angeles had sought more than $100 million in federal veterans' housing grants, Housing and Urban Development housing grants and local money. To keep them off the streets, city officials are working with businesses and nonprofit groups to help veterans find jobs, get medical and mental health treatment and other resources they might need.

"We are putting folks in [homes] and not just counting them as checked off," Garcetti told the Los Angeles Times after his speech. “Somebody might go into an apartment, but we’re making sure they have the counseling that they need, making sure they have the job training."

More than 44,000 homeless people were counted in Los Angeles County last year, a 12% increase from 2013, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Of the total, nearly 26,000 were in the city of L.A.

Veterans make up about 15% to 20% of the city’s homeless, Garcetti said, and Los Angeles is working to scale up the veteran model to help other homeless Angelenos.

“People are frustrated by the homelessness in Los Angeles, and I want to mobilize 4 million people to be engaged,” Garcetti said. “With this, I think you’re finally able to see for the first time, really in my lifetime, a significant victory. It gives me a lot of hope.”

Obama urged other mayors to join her push.

“Your peers have provided you all with a road map for how to get this done,” she told the mayors. “Whether you’re a big city, a small county or an entire state — someone just like you has done it."

Since joining the first lady’s challenge, Santa Barbara County has found housing for 90 of about 270 homeless veterans, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider said. Part of that progress resulted from focusing on the needs of 10 chronically homeless people along a single street. All 10 have moved into homes and one is now employed by a business he once panhandled in front of, she said.

She pointed to the 1% rental vacancy rate in the city, and said Santa Barbara is starting a program to encourage landlords to give veterans priority for available rentals.

Schneider, co-chair of the Conference of Mayors' Hunger and Homelessness Task Force, said the challenge had forced cities to develop more sophisticated approaches to homelessness.

"It's forcing us to collect data and follow through and figure out what's working and be accountable," she said. "We see progress. We're just taking longer than we'd like."

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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