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Army veteran Michael Shea, 32, gives a tour of his 8-by-8-foot shelter at the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2022. Shea’s shelter is one of 110 tiny shelters where veterans reside while receiving social services and waiting for permanent housing.

Army veteran Michael Shea, 32, gives a tour of his 8-by-8-foot shelter at the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2022. Shea’s shelter is one of 110 tiny shelters where veterans reside while receiving social services and waiting for permanent housing. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

LOS ANGELES — On a mild winter night in late February, two large, black Suburbans pulled into the parking lot of the Downtown Women’s Center in the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles, home to one of the country’s largest homeless populations.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough got out of one SUV and was quickly surrounded by about a dozen people waiting to meet him. The group included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, as well as Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and representatives from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the California Department of Veterans Affairs, and the office of Hilda Solis, a member of the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors.

For the following two hours, the group crisscrossed Skid Row, tallying the number of homeless individuals for the federal government’s annual point-in-time count — a nationwide effort to calculate the country’s homeless population.

The convening in Skid Row that night was emblematic of the partnerships that are necessary to make significant progress in the fight against veteran homelessness, McDonough said.

“We saw in action the kinds of partnerships that have allowed us to begin to make very significant progress against veteran homelessness here in Los Angeles and beginning across the country,” he said. “Those are the types of federal, state, local, private and philanthropic organizations that we’re going to need to continue the progress we’ve begun.”

The VA has set out to prove if the agency can end veteran homelessness in Los Angeles, which has one of the tightest housing markets in the country and more homeless veterans than in any other city, it can be done anywhere.

McDonough on Feb. 25 announced his goals for veteran homelessness in 2022, one of which is to get at least 1,500 homeless veterans in Los Angeles into permanent housing. Nationally, he wants the VA to house 38,000 veterans this year. If the department achieves those goals, it will have housed 10% more veterans in Los Angeles and nationwide than in 2021.

The department is leaning on its partnerships, increased levels of federal funding and a heightened sense of urgency to accomplish its benchmarks in Los Angeles, and it’s tackling the issue on multiple fronts, from providing tiny, temporary shelters for veterans living on the street to constructing permanent housing units on its massive VA campus.

However, the lack of housing stock in the area, as well as a shortage of case managers who can help veterans stay in their homes, are challenges that confront the agency. Additionally, advocates wonder how and when the work in Los Angeles will be replicated elsewhere.

Army veteran Michael Shea, 32, stands in front of his 8-by-8-foot shelter on the grounds of the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Shea has lived in the shelter for about three months while saving money for a more permanent home.

Army veteran Michael Shea, 32, stands in front of his 8-by-8-foot shelter on the grounds of the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. Shea has lived in the shelter for about three months while saving money for a more permanent home. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

From tents to shelters

Army veteran Michael Shea, 32, walked past rows and rows of identical, 8-by-8-foot shelters searching for the one that belonged to him.

Shea’s temporary home was one of 110 tiny shelters located on the VA campus in West Los Angeles. The shelters were placed atop pallets on new concrete in what was recently an empty lot about half the size of a football field.

Once he arrived at his shelter, which was undistinguishable from the rest, Shea opened the door, revealing a tiny room with a cot on one end and clothes hanging on the other. Shelves lined the back wall and contained all his possessions. The space came with a solitary light, an air conditioning unit, a heater and four windows.

“I have my independence, my own space,” Shea said. “A lot of people say it’s like a jail cell, but I don’t believe that. I’ve been in solitary confinement, and here, you can open the door.”

Shea spent several years bouncing between VA treatment programs, jail and halfway houses in the Midwest before he came to California last year to find his new beginning. He lived in a tent on the VA campus for a while before the department introduced the tiny shelters in October.

The shelters are part of the VA’s recent push to reduce veteran homelessness in Los Angeles. It started with McDonough’s visit to the West Los Angles site in October, when he spoke to veterans living in tents along San Vicente Boulevard, which abuts one end of the VA campus. The encampment, known as Veterans Row, was home to about 40 people at the time.

McDonough ordered VA staff in Los Angeles to find other temporary housing for those veterans, and he tasked them with getting another 500 veterans into transitional or permanent housing before the end of the 2021. Transitional housing is an intermediary step between homelessness and permanent housing and includes residential treatment facilities, as well as the tiny shelters now assembled on VA grounds.

When Veterans Row was first ordered closed, some veterans moved inside VA gates, where the department set up rows of tents. Shea lived in one of those for a brief amount of time.

“In the tents with the wind, it would get cold. Here, it’s been awesome,” said Shea, referring to the tiny shelters. “Although, with the Porta-John and showers, you know, whatever. But there are very dedicated people, and it’s been getting better.”

The first three shelters arrived in October and more were introduced incrementally in the following four months. They were donated by various philanthropists, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Veterans use portable toilets and shower in a mobile shower truck. In late February, construction workers were busy building a mess hall, where veterans would soon be able to socialize and eat three meals per day.

The VA fulfilled McDonough’s goal and housed 705 veterans by the end of 2021. About half of those veterans were placed in permanent housing, and the other half were in the tiny shelters or other transitional units. Kathryn Monet, president of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, said the department should make a clear distinction between the two. Her organization coordinates efforts to end veteran homelessness and works with Congress, the White House and local, state and private agencies nationwide.

Just because veterans are placed into transitional housing, doesn’t mean they’ll eventually graduate to a permanent home, Monet said. About 80% of individuals in transitional housing move onto something more permanent.

It’s also important to ensure veterans aren’t languishing in the tiny shelters long-term, she said.

“I don’t want to say the shelters are terrible. They’re moving someone indoors from something that was probably terrible, and if they’re choosing that option, it’s probably an option they want. That’s a good thing,” Monet said. “But that doesn’t always mean they’re going to move onto housing. We think a lot about what kinds of services and supports are paired with it, and how are you really engaging with the veterans who are there?”

Three large trailers were parked at the site of the tiny shelters in West Los Angeles. Inside each were a few rooms holding offices for caseworkers. Veterans at the site were enrolled into the VA’s care, treatment and rehabilitative services program, which provides access to medical care and behavioral health services, as well as help with obtaining permanent housing.

Chanin Santini, a VA social worker, oversees the site. She has a team of three social workers and two peer-support specialists who work with veterans. Medical providers are on site every day, treating veterans and providing coronavirus vaccinations and tests. The VA also offers amenities such as acupuncture and a storytelling group.

Santini sees the community of tiny shelters as a comfortable, temporary stop for veterans on their way to something better.

“I think sometimes people want to think the VA is just this machine that doesn’t move,” she said. “But there’s so many cool things that happen here, like I never would’ve thought this would get turned into what it is. This will be a great place for folks to hang out, and then be able to move toward their next housing goal."

The time to get veterans from the shelters to their next goal varies, Santini said.

“It’s all on a case-by-case basis. The case managers do a really good job of meeting the veteran where they are and working with them,” she said. “So that’s either our HUD-VASH program, or some veterans just want to save enough money to be able to purchase a home. It all depends on what’s going on with them.”

Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, speaks to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2022. Marston and McDonough participated in the federal government’s annual point-in-time count, an effort to calculate the country’s homeless population. McDonough said the partnership between the VA and LAHSA is valuable in the fight against veteran homelessness.

Heidi Marston, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, speaks to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2022. Marston and McDonough participated in the federal government’s annual point-in-time count, an effort to calculate the country’s homeless population. McDonough said the partnership between the VA and LAHSA is valuable in the fight against veteran homelessness. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

Challenging housing market

HUD-VASH refers to a federal program in which the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides vouchers that subsidize the cost of housing for veterans in the private market, while the VA provides case management and clinical services designed to keep them in their homes.

The program is a key part of the VA’s “Housing First” initiative, which is designed to get veterans into homes as quickly as possible while offering support to help them keep their housing. The initiative runs counter to programs that require veterans to be deemed “housing ready” before they’re eligible for a home.

A study released this month by the University of California, Los Angeles, found Housing First was effective in helping homeless veterans access housing and remain in their homes. Researchers credited the initiative with a nearly 50% reduction in homeless veterans nationwide since 2009. That year, 73,000 veterans were homeless, compared with 36,000 in 2020.

Efforts to sustain Housing First have continued, the researchers said, but they found strong leadership and community partnerships were necessary for it to remain effective over time.

Funding for the HUD-VASH program has continued to increase over the years. On Thursday, Congress approved a federal spending bill for 2022 that would allocate $2.2 billion for the VA’s homelessness programs. It includes $735 million for the HUD-VASH program — about $100 million more than last year. President Joe Biden is expected to sign the bill.

Biden’s administration is already looking toward the 2023 budget, and the VA is expected to soon release its requests for next year.

Monet testified to Congress on March 2 that the VA should get an additional $150 million in 2023 for the HUD-VASH program, including about $50 million to hire more case managers who work with veterans to help them stay in their homes.

Case managers are in extremely high demand in the Los Angeles area, which makes it difficult for the VA to have enough, Monet said.

“What I hear from providers out in Los Angeles is that it’s a really competitive employment market,” she said. “It’s competitive for employers, so case managers can pick and choose.”

Continuing with the Housing First approach, McDonough established new goals for HUD-VASH vouchers in 2022. He ordered the staff in Los Angeles to make certain at least 75% of the vouchers allotted to veterans in the area are used successfully to subsidize their housing. McDonough also wants to increase the number of vouchers that are used within 90 days of being issued. He asked the Los Angeles VA to help bring that rate to 50%.

Veterans often will be awarded vouchers but are unable to find rental units where the landlords permit tenants who use them. That problem is particularly stark in Los Angeles, where there are low vacancy rates, and the housing market is fast paced.

Seventy-five percent remains well below the national average for voucher utilization rates, but it would be a significant increase for the Los Angeles area, McDonough said.

“If we can get it done in the tightest housing market in the country, we can get it done anywhere,” he said.

The problem of voucher utilization is the largest obstacle to housing veterans in Los Angeles, Monet argued.

“I think the vouchers are great, but if you don't have a lot of housing units in which to use them, it can be challenging,” she said. “Their housing stock is one of the biggest issues.”

Faced with low inventory of housing, the VA is working to create some of its own.

The Department of Veterans Affairs campus is located in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles and spans 388 acres. McDonough tasked VA staff at the site with finding permanent housing for 1,500 veterans in 2022.

The Department of Veterans Affairs campus is located in the Brentwood neighborhood of West Los Angeles and spans 388 acres. McDonough tasked VA staff at the site with finding permanent housing for 1,500 veterans in 2022. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

An abundance of space

When you exit off the busy Wilshire Boulevard and onto the VA campus in West Los Angeles, the traffic thins and the space between buildings widens.

The land was donated to the government in 1888 by a wealthy California landowner who wanted the area to be used to provide health care and homes for disabled veterans. There are several historic structures on the campus, and most of the buildings were built in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, with their characteristic red-tile roofs and stucco walls.

Many of the buildings now sit vacant, some because of their states of disrepair and others because the coronavirus pandemic pushed employees out of their offices.

The campus contains a nine-hole golf course, a Japanese garden and plenty of open space. There are 388 acres in total, and exactly how to use the land has been the subject of serious debate in the past several years.

In late February, construction workers were busy restoring two large buildings on the campus into permanent housing units for veterans. A third building in the area is already complete and contains about 50 apartments. By the end of the year, the VA expects to have 186 apartments ready for use.

“There is a ton of space out there on the West [Los Angeles] campus,” Monet said. “I'm happy to see that they're finally trying to maximize its usage to address one of the major issues that veterans in that community are facing.”

The restorations are part of a broader plan, first established in 2016, to build 1,200 subsidized apartments for homeless veterans on VA grounds.

Progress on the effort has been slow. In 2021, five years after it launched, only 54 units had been finished — about 11% of what was expected to be complete by that time. After an investigation last year, the VA’s Office of Inspector General blamed the delays on land-use issues, environmental impact studies, the need for infrastructure upgrades and challenges with fundraising, among other issues.

Shortly after taking office last year, McDonough promised to give his approval on a master plan for the project by the end of 2021. A 200-page plan was posted to the Federal Register in October, and it garnered more than 1,000 comments that the VA must now aggregate and consider, McDonough said. The plan called for 800 apartments to be under development at the campus by 2023.

McDonough hasn't approved a plan yet. He said in February that a revised master plan would be released to the public soon, but he didn’t offer a date.

“The American people have dedicated resources to this effort,” he said. “We’ll continue to hold ourselves to account. There will be no secrets in the master plan.”

It also remained uncertain how the plan might change based on input from the public. In Monet’s opinion, the plan should include more housing units than the 1,200 initially proposed. There isn’t much empty space left in Los Angeles for development, she argued, and the VA campus has a lot of it.

“One thing I do think a lot about is the golf course there,” Monet said. “People like to golf, and it’s therapeutic for some veterans. But for some veterans who are homeless, having a house is therapeutic, too. So, to some degree, I would be comfortable seeing more development on campus.”

Construction workers restore a 1920s-era building on the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2022. Two buildings on VA grounds were being made into housing units for homeless veterans, with each set to contain 50 apartments. The work is part of a larger master plan that assists the VA in determining the most effective use for the 388-acre campus.

Construction workers restore a 1920s-era building on the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles on Feb. 23, 2022. Two buildings on VA grounds were being made into housing units for homeless veterans, with each set to contain 50 apartments. The work is part of a larger master plan that assists the VA in determining the most effective use for the 388-acre campus. (Nikki Wentling/Stars and Stripes)

A sense of urgency

When McDonough established his initial goals for veteran homelessness in Los Angeles, staff met those benchmarks and brainstormed ideas such as the tiny shelters, as well as “documentation days,” events at which veterans could submit all their paperwork to receive government identification.

When asked why the VA couldn’t eliminate Veterans Row and house 705 additional veterans before McDonough set the goals, the secretary listed two factors: a heightened sense of urgency and additional funding from Congress.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Congress provided the VA’s homelessness programs with an additional $1.5 billion in an effort to get veterans into safe housing where they could follow social distancing guidelines. In some cases, that included housing veterans in hotels and motels.

In December, the VA disbursed $20 million to VA medical centers for the purpose of assisting homeless veterans. The funds came from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill approved by Congress last spring. The VA was given the authority late last year to use the funds to address homelessness.

The $2.2 billion that Congress approved in its spending deal Thursday would mark the highest-ever budget for veteran homelessness efforts and a 16% increase over 2021.

“Congress has been very generous with investments,” McDonough said. “The Speaker of the House [Nancy Pelosi] and [President Joe Biden] have been very clear to me, personally, that this is a major priority, and that's why they've set aside significant — even historic — levels of funding to help us to ensure that we get it done.”

During McDonough’s visit to Los Angeles, he asserted the local VA had the funding, partnerships and other tools necessary to reduce homelessness. The final element, he said, was to apply urgency.

“What remains is for us to underscore that we will not tolerate the idea that there’s a homeless veteran in this country,” he said. “When we internalize that and apply the urgency of our activity to the intensity of that principle, then we have all the other ingredients to get this done.”

While outlining his plans for veteran homelessness in Los Angeles last year, McDonough claimed the focus there would help spark momentum on the issue across the country. It remains unclear whether that has materialized yet.

McDonough mentioned two locations — New Orleans and Salt Lake City — where he believes improvements have been made, but advocates such as Monet would like to see a more concerted effort in places outside Los Angeles. Monet said she hoped the VA would launch something like a nationwide housing challenge to get other locations involved in addressing the issue.

“I think what’s missing from the conversation is: What is the VA doing to help people anywhere get this done?” she said. “How do we get other VA [medical centers] to do that?”

Monet said she does believe McDonough’s involvement in Los Angeles is “really positive” and creating faster movement there. As their direct supervisor, McDonough’s attention is meaningful to other VA leaders, she said.

The increased focus has resonated with Steve Braverman, director of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. Braverman joined McDonough and the rest of the group in February that counted homeless individuals in Skid Row.

The night prior, Braverman spoke to about 50 VA employees who had gathered on the VA campus before setting out to count homeless veterans throughout the grounds — an effort that was also part of the government’s annual point-in-time count.

Braverman let them know that — as far as veteran homelessness was concerned — all eyes were on Los Angeles.

“The secretary of the VA has made it very clear that from his perspective, we’re the center of the veteran homelessness universe,” he said.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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