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Helping homeless vets

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says he wants to end homelessness among veterans within five years. But what's missing is a sense of urgency.

July 21, 2010

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki declared last year that he intended to end homelessness among veterans within five years. That was welcome news to Los Angeles, where advocates say there are more veterans on the streets and in shelters than in any other part of the country — about 8,000 on any given night, by the VA's estimate. But while we're pleased that efforts to combat homelessness have become a top priority, they haven't yet shown the urgency that Shinseki's pledge demands.

One example of this, oddly enough, is in the VA's recent agreement to spend $20 million to convert one of the buildings on its campus in West Los Angeles into therapeutic housing for up to 90 veterans who are chronically homeless. The building is one of three on the campus that had once been used to house and treat disabled veterans but have been largely idle since the 1980s. Not to sound like ingrates, but why not convert all three buildings at the same time? The cost per unit would be lower and more beds would be assured.

Led by Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, local officials have been urging the VA for years to do just that, only to run into an array of bureaucratic and political hurdles. The task was made more complicated in 2007, when Congress barred the VA from leasing property at the West Los Angeles campus to private developers. The move successfully stopped the VA from parceling out land to developers to help pay its bills, as intended, but it also made it harder for nongovernmental groups to raise private dollars to build housing for veterans there.

Not that the VA seems to be short on funds for homeless vets. To achieve his goal of getting all veterans off the streets by 2014, Shinseki has committed $3.2 billion from the VA's budget. The amount needed to refurbish the buildings in West Los Angeles is a tiny fraction of that sum. Instead, what seems to be missing is the will to shift this effort into a higher gear.

Local VA officials point with pride to the ever-expanding "continuum of care" offered to homeless veterans, including about 1,500 beds around the county and even more vouchers for affordable housing. Most of that aid, however, is for veterans who need short-term help to get back on their feet and reintegrated into the community. The VA's own estimates show that almost a fourth of homeless veterans have multiple afflictions, and they're best served by the kind of long-term supportive housing that's in desperately short supply. We hope that Shinseki, who is coming to L.A. on Wednesday, will leave with a greater appreciation of the magnitude of the homelessness problem and the resources waiting to be tapped.

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