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Iraq War veteran Lavon Johnson, 35, plays piano inside his tent along “veterans row” along San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2021.
Iraq War veteran Lavon Johnson, 35, plays piano inside his tent along “veterans row” along San Vicente Boulevard in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, 2021. (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs created a new executive-level position dedicated solely to housing veterans in Los Angeles, where there are more homeless former service members than in any other city in the country. 

The department announced Wednesday that it created the position of senior executive homelessness agent for Greater Los Angeles and tapped Keith Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist, to take the role. Harris previously worked as national director of clinical operations for the Homeless Programs Office within the Veterans Health Administration. 

In the new position, Harris will be tasked with managing 4,000 employees who provide outreach, case management, health care and housing services to over 200,000 veterans who are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. 

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in November that he was putting more focus on veteran homelessness in Los Angeles, with the hope that progress there could spark momentum across the country. 

“It is really important, in my view, that we build up momentum in LA to demonstrate to the country that this is, indeed, a fixable problem,” McDonough said at the time. “I want us to get this job finished, and I think we can do it.” 

Veterans experience homelessness at a disproportionately high rate compared to the rest of the U.S. population, and there are more homeless veterans in Los Angeles County than anywhere else in the country. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 37,252 veterans were experiencing homelessness in January 2020. Of those veterans, 3,681, or about 10%, lived in Los Angeles. 

McDonough started his efforts in Los Angeles by promising to get all homeless veterans living in the area known as “veterans row” into housing by Nov. 1. About 40 people were living along veterans row, a homeless encampment just outside the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center, when McDonough visited the facility in October.   

McDonough announced on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, that the VA accomplished that goal. 

In addition to eliminating veterans row, McDonough vowed to house another 500 homeless veterans in Los Angeles in time for the holidays. Speaking to reporters Monday, VA Deputy Secretary Donald Remy said the VA had surpassed that goal and found housing for 537 veterans.

“I want to let everyone know, and I’m proud to inform you, that the Greater Los Angeles Health Care System has now housed 537 veterans since October 20,” Remy said.  

Of those veterans, 46% have found permanent housing using government vouchers, and the rest have been accepted into temporary housing, Remy said.  

The primary role of the new executive position is to represent the VA secretary as the agency works on a major project to create housing for homeless veterans on the campus of the West Los Angeles VA hospital.  

For about five years, the VA has been working on a plan to build 1,200 subsidized apartments for homeless veterans on the campus, but progress has been slow. 

McDonough vowed during the summer to give his approval on a master plan for the project by the end of the year. A new draft plan was posted to the Federal Register in October, and members of the public had until Dec. 17 to provide feedback on the plan, which is more than 200 pages. 

Harris will be tasked with implementing the master plan, which states 800 units are expected to be under development at the campus by 2023. 

In the meantime, the VA is creating a manifest of all homeless veterans in LA, including background information for each veteran about the underlying issues that led to their homelessness, McDonough said. That could include substance abuse disorders, untreated mental health problems, unemployment and involvement in the justice system. 

McDonough insisted the department wasn’t ignoring homelessness in the rest of the country but he said the VA is focused on building momentum in LA. He wants to get back to the level of work being done on the issue between 2010 and 2016, when veteran homelessness was cut in half nationwide, he said. 

The number of homeless veterans in the United States rose in 2017 for the first time in seven years. According to the most recent data, veteran homelessness increased from 2019 to 2020, which stoked fears among advocates that the effects of the coronavirus pandemic could add to an already regressive trend. 

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