LOS ANGELES, California – Wandering beneath the full thrust of the Southern California sunshine, men with exhausted faces and cracked hands hold an array of handwritten cardboard signs near the eponymous boardwalk that links Santa Monica and Venice Beach. One says he is a veteran of the Gulf War and hasn’t been able to pay rent. Another stands barefoot on the grimy pavement and speaks in barely audible tones.
Just a few miles west, many more homeless U.S. veterans lurk on the edges of one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, right outside the manicured, sweeping grounds of the Veterans Affairs (VA) – a place that, from the outset, resembles something akin to a heritage-listed, barren town belonging to a time long ago.
But sadly, this chunk of the earth represents the axis of the U.S. veteran homeless cosmos; Americans left without a place to call home in the homeland they signed the dotted line to serve. It doesn’t make sense. Los Angeles boasts the largest VA medical center in the entire country. Yet, to use the more politically-correct term, the sunny state has the highest number (by far) of veterans – upwards of 11,000 – experiencing homelessness. Just under half live in Los Angeles.
And despite the awareness devoted to the matter, the money tossed around, vigorous statements from officials and passionate drives from activists and non-profit groups over the recent years, the numbers have remained steady since 2015.
What on earth is going on?
Perhaps the best person to speak on the matter isn’t an official from a bloated bureaucracy but someone who volunteers their time to lead grassroots initiatives aimed at fixing the problem from the ground up. That person is Robert Reynolds, a thirty-something former California firefighter and Army infantry Veteran of the Iraq war. Between his deployment and finding his next footing in life, Robert struggled with getting the help he needed and, in the process, saw firsthand what other veterans rendered to the streets were enduring.
“Seeing what was happening was so appalling to me,” he tells me matter-of-factly.
Some veterans I speak to say they receive assistance from non-government service providers, while others claim to be receiving no help. Many conclude that the overtures of events don’t seem to lead them down the path to permanent housing, citing paperwork and follow-up challenges, while others note that the type of housing was inappropriate for a family or raised concerns about the rules and regulations attached to the rooms on offer. Housing costs in Los Angeles also appear to be a significant stumbling block, with vouchers unable to cover the expenses required for safe and stable housing and eventually expiring.
I dig deeper into the leading causes of veteran homelessness, not only in L.A but across the country.
According to The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), social isolation and lack of support – especially in the face of high divorce rates in the community – resulting in as many as one in five living alone following military discharge, increasing one’s risk of ending up on the streets. In addition, psychology Today points to substance abuse as a significant factor in the realm of drugs and alcohol.
Mental disorders, including PTSD and anxiety, as per a Brainline report, are deemed “strong predictors” of veteran homelessness. Further, CityLab studies highlight the shortage of affordable housing in conjunction with affordable healthcare outside the overwhelmed VA system. And the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness identifies unemployment as one dominant contributor, which can be caused by all of the above – substance abuse, mental or physical ailments and social desolation.
In addition, access to transitional housing does not mean one will eventually be upgraded into a long-stay home. The low vacancy rates and high-priced, fast-paced housing market that has long dominated the Los Angeles landscape mean landlords have the final say on who gets what and when, and vouchers generally have a four-month maximum.
Although L.A. continues to be the center of the problem, the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to make promises that seem month after month, year after year, to fall to the wayside.
Earlier this year, officials declared that their aim for 2022 is to “get at least 1500 homeless veterans” into permanent housing and some 38,000 nationally by the year’s end. It’s a lofty goal.
“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,” noted a March report in Stars and Stripes.
However, the likes of Robert contend that more money makes little dent in solving the flagrant dilemma – and a large-scale, dirty land dispute lies at the heart of the problem: VA land in West Los Angeles, donated by a wealthy Angeleno long ago for the purpose of housing vets in need, has been leased and siphoned off to wealthy Brentwood institutions.
The local VA officials were not only not using the land to house homeless vets, but they were actively misusing it by entering into private agreements that had nothing to do with healthcare, housing, or otherwise supporting veterans. According to critics, the land’s prime location in the star-studded Brentwood area nestled by the Santa Monica Mountains and Beverly Hills, roughly the size of New York’s Central Park, played a significant role in veterans’ displacement.
I first learned of this in the early Spring of 2016, years after a class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of homeless veterans and the descendants of Arcadia de Baker (the wealthy widow of two powerful landowners) against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in a bid to return the valuable land parcel to the veteran community.
The suit came more than a century after de Baker, a mining magnate and an affluent socialite and John Percival Jones, a silver baron, one-time U.S. senator from Nevada and founder of Santa Monica, in 1888 deeded 400 acres of prime L.A. estate to the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. Only it was revealed that the eminent land, situated in and around the current VA grounds, was instead being leased by a local private school and university, serving as the locale for elegant wine tastings, a college baseball stadium, a commercial laundry, a swanky golf course and a myriad of enterprises that have nothing to do with our nation’s servicemen and women.
Despite serving as a refuge for tens of thousands of veterans scarred in battles from the Civil War to the Vietnam War, something changed in the 1970s. Although there were plenty of wounded veterans needing aid, the Veterans Administration emptied the sprawling grounds known as the West Los Angeles Campus and began renting the property for all sorts of uses that had nothing to do with veteran care.
“In the 70s, essentially a mass eviction took place. It was after an earthquake, and buildings (belonging to the VA) were damaged,” Robert explains. “They never fixed them. So today, only 54 permanent housing units are on the entire property.”
I can only imagine what it must be like sitting on that cold concrete in the frigid winter, your storied life of service amounting to a few tattered cardboard boxes of soiled items, weathering a daily struggle for food, for medical care, without the support of loved ones. Compound that with physical and mental ailments induced by memories of the battlefield. It is the sort of thing I see in faraway war zones: civilians uprooted from their homes by bomb blasts and insurgents. Only it is here in the crux of Hollywood, with no UNHCR camp to take you in, no international laws to protect you. I can only imagine the trauma and re-trauma of this lonely existence akin to a nightmare.
Yet every day, thousands of U.S. veterans are living it, trying to survive, whereby the supposed civilized institutions we fund to help have their sights set on more lucrative interests. In the face of such tragedy, how can we expect future generations to sign the dotted line?
The VA has not provided its accounting; however, critics estimated over six years ago that it has earned as much as $40 million over the decades leasing the land out for such uses as hotel laundry facilities, movie studio storage, car rental companies, oil companies and public-school bus parking lots. Golf tournaments, musical performances, wine tastings, and gala benefits have all been held on the rolling acreage.
Meanwhile, the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles – remember, this is the nation’s largest population of homeless and veterans with disabilities – only burgeoned.
The hope in 2016 was that such brazen transgressions would be quickly corrected following a legal settlement between parties. There was a special committee formed to work with the Veterans Administration to reappropriate funds and develop the area. Across the city, town hall meetings were held to address the issue, and press releases and vows to build a “master plan” were widely disseminated.
But more than six-and-a-half years later, the case still represents a hotbed of dashed dreams and delays, frustrated advocates who have come and gone from the seemingly Sisyphean task, and little progress. It raises the pertinent question of just how committed the VA is to making considerable strides in solving L.A.’s homelessness debacle.
“We are talking about the most vulnerable veterans with mental illness and physical disabilities. This has been an eye-opening experience,” Robert continues. “Just witnessing how serious the mental health issues are, people that may already be predisposed to illnesses that don’t onset until they are in their mid-twenties or later. But they join the military at eighteen or nineteen and go on to experience traumatic events, and the next thing you know, they are in this debilitating situation. Unfortunately, the federal government just isn’t doing enough to manage or take care of them.”
Using similar rhetoric of all those years ago, a press release from the VA in April declared that Progress on Master Plan 2022 “continues to be a top V.A. priority, as is our commitment to eliminate Veteran homelessness across the nation.” It calls for the same things trumpeted in 2016: around one thousand housing units over the next six years, the development of a town square and buildings that will provide amenities such as a wellness and career services center for veterans, as well as bike lanes and walking trails.
Moreover, many of the same buildings on that remarkable expanse of VA land that sat vacant years ago remain empty (yes, while homeless veterans shuffle steps away), crumbling even deeper beyond repair. Restorations were, of course, also part of the highly-touted 2016 plan.
Throughout 2021, five years after the plan’s momentous launch, only 54 units were completed, roughly 11 percent of what was supposed to be finished by that time. A subsequent probe by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General attributes the setbacks to everything from environmental impact studies and fundraising hurdles to land use disputes and infrastructure upgrades.
Despite its alleged illegality, the federal government still leases a chunk of the property (termed “enhanced leases”) to UCLA for its baseball facilities. Another company uses it for oil drilling, and a private school erected a top-notch sports complex. “Permanent housing” for wounded warriors still seems a pipe dream. The VA even signed a new ten-year lease with the Brentwood School and, in 2020, amended its UCLA lease behind closed doors to add a new practice field to the agreement.
One tiny-home village has gone up, but that was not even part of the 2016 master plan, veteran advocates tell me. In 2019, the VA subverted the housing debacle by proposing to spend more than $4 million on a “healing garden.” Not surprisingly, critics contend that the strategy largely ignores guidance and suggestions put forward by veterans over the years.
There is little left to conclude, no matter how and which way you slice it, other than the progress is paltry, and the decades of advocacy to stop the leasing of veteran land to non-veteran interests has amounted to little.
Nonetheless, the VA continues to insist that the money acquired benefits those in need.
“All third-party land use agreements provide benefits to Veterans and their families. In addition, revenue from leases is permitted by law to be reinvested to support construction, maintenance, and services relating to temporary or permanent supportive housing for homeless or at-risk Veterans and their families,” reads a VA statement. “The services provided through the land use agreements and funded through the generation of lease revenues are vital to providing the care our Veterans have earned.”
The VA continues to espouse that it “diligently works to build a future community on the grounds of the West Los Angeles campus Veterans are being housed and connected with resources throughout the Greater Los Angeles region daily.”
And still, almost anyone who passes by that critical West Los Angeles juncture where the arteries of Wilshire and San Vicente converge, can attest that those roaming barefoot and barren deserve better.
The fiasco was raised again during a late August Congressional meeting in Los Angeles. Veteran rights proponents lament the lack of transparency and efforts by some in the VA’s higher echelons to conceal the expansion of UCLA’s fields from veterans in 2021.
“Additionally, UCLA is supposed to offer legal services as part of their in-kind contributions for the Jackie Robinson lease. However, accessing that service has been challenging for many homeless Veterans,” Robert points out in a report after the meeting. “At the beginning of 2022, we were told that housing construction for the first units would be completed in the fall, and Veterans would be able to move in by the end of the year. Now, we are told that construction will not be completed until January 2023.”
Moreover, he stresses that the ten-year timeline to construct 1,200 units of housing is “a disservice to our brothers and sisters that are sleeping and dying on the streets of Los Angeles.”
“The VA, HVAC, and SVAC should do everything possible to expedite housing construction,” Robert notes sternly. “Taking ten years to build 1200 units of housing is insane.”
And from my lens, it seems as though the core problem of veteran homelessness has little to do with a deficiency in funding. This past August, the VA disbursed more than $400 million in taxpayer grants to hundreds of non-profits to “end veteran homelessness” nationwide. But where this money is going, and more explicitly how it will help, is a legitimate cause for concern. Veterans, whether in combat or otherwise, volunteered to safeguard citizens of the United States of America. But unfortunately, the land that is rightfully theirs is instead being misused to benefit the nation’s elite.
And the longer the injustice drags on, the further it falls from the discerning public eye. Yet so long as there are veterans without a roof to call home, the likes of Robert will keep on fighting the system.
“The property needs to operate lawfully, the way it was intended. The focus must be on getting the housing built, getting veterans off the street, and not on these special interest groups,” he underscores. “But these are big, powerful entities. They spend a lot of money lobbying; thus, it becomes very easy for the government, politicians, and the VA to dismiss homeless veterans.”
Robert pauses for a long moment.
“A lot of mentally ill people can’t advocate for themselves,” he adds. “Our government doesn’t want to acknowledge this, and it is almost like they are trying to protect a big lie. But we know what is going on, and we won’t turn away.”