More than 30,000 US troops will be coming home from Afghanistan in the next year, joining more than a million who have already returned from the war there and in Iraq. Many, crippled by post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma, will face homelessness—and more of those will end up living on the streets of Los Angeles than of any other city.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Almost 400 acres of Veterans Administration land in Brentwood, in West LA, is supposed to be used for housing disabled veterans. It was donated in 1888 explicitly for that purpose, and for the next eighty years tens of thousands of vets lived there, at the Pacific Branch soldiers’ home. But for the past several decades, the dormitories have been empty, and over the years the VA has leased parts of the site to Enterprise Rent-a-Car for a parking lot, to the Marriott hotels for a commercial laundry, to UCLA for a baseball field and a dog park. Meanwhile, homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.
“If you want to spend the night at the VA in Brentwood,” says Mark Rosenbaum of the ACLU of Southern California, “you’re better off as a rental car than a homeless vet.” And if you want access to the VA land, “you’re better off as a dog.” The ACLU-SC filed a class-action suit on behalf of homeless vets in 2011 (disclosure: I’m a member of the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation).
Particularly in need of help are vets with severe mental disabilities and those suffering from PTSD and other disorders. Housing is key to treating their medical problems, and there’s a regional VA medical center across the street from the empty dorms in Brentwood. The VA, however, argues that it has no legal or other obligation to provide housing for mentally disabled vets. It has acknowledged in court that it is required to provide medical services, but it argues that it has no responsibility to provide housing, even though that housing is essential for those vets to have access to medical services.
LA is the homeless veterans capital of the country. At last count, in December 2012, the Housing Department reported 6,371 homeless vets living in LA and 62,619 nationwide. Of course, these official counts fail to find many of the vets sleeping under bridges, in alleys or in abandoned buildings.
President Obama and his secretary for veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, have done much more than their predecessors to help homeless vets, including providing rental vouchers and money to those who have housing but are on the brink of eviction. For vets whose only problem is poverty, these measures have been successful in many places on a limited scale. But for the many homeless vets with serious psychiatric problems, substance abuse issues and physical disabilities, the solution has to be permanent supportive housing, with case managers on site.