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WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough promised Monday that he would renew the agency’s focus on a major project to house homeless veterans in Los Angeles. 

McDonough delivered the opening address Monday for the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, a nonprofit that coordinates efforts to end veteran homelessness with Congress, the White House and local, state and federal agencies that provide services to homeless veterans. 

In this Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill, in Washington.
In this Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/AP)

The group testified to Congress last week about their concerns that an “unprecedented wave” of homelessness could hit the United States as the unemployment assistance granted during the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end and the country lifts its moratorium on evictions. 

Even before the pandemic began, veteran homelessness had risen slightly. In January 2020, 37,252 veterans were experiencing homelessness — an increase of 167 veterans, or 0.4%, from January 2019. At that time, nearly 10% of all homeless veterans lived in Los Angeles. Of the 3,681 homeless veterans in LA, 76% were living on the street.  

For about five years, the VA has been working on a plan to build 1,200 subsidized apartments for homeless veterans on the campus of the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. McDonough acknowledged Monday that the effort had taken too long. Of the 1,200 apartments, only 54 have been finished, McDonough said. 

“We have to move faster,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons for the delays, and we’re going to solve them.” 

McDonough vowed to give his approval on a master plan for the project by the end of the year. 

Last week, Congress approved a bill that some lawmakers believe will help the project move faster. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., led the legislation, which will allow the VA to spend revenue from land-use agreements on building projects. Under current law, the money can be spent only on maintenance. 

The lawmakers said the simple change to law could help the VA gain the funding to build more apartments quickly. The legislation passed without objection and will be sent to President Joe Biden for his signature. 

“The West LA VA campus has the potential to serve as a model for the nation on how to address veteran homelessness,” McDonough said. “It’s not a model yet, but I am committed to making sure it is. It will have an outsized impact on veteran homelessness in LA and help us regain momentum across the country.”  

Before McDonough spoke Monday, Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said she believed that with the “renewed commitment” of Congress and the White House to address veterans’ homelessness, the next few years could be a chance to drive the numbers down. 

“This is our year,” Monet said. “It’s a year to turn this once-in-a-lifetime [pandemic] into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a brighter future for our veterans.” 

wentling.nikki@stripes.com

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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