The VA’s new ten­ants

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

On the sprawl­ing West L.A. cam­pus of the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs rises a stately, pale yel­low build­ing known by the non­de­script name Build­ing 209. In­side, fans hang from high ceil­ings, walls gleam with new paint, and win­dows look out on the bu­colic grounds, of­fer­ing glimpses of hills in the dis­tance. Nowhere in sight are the streets that the build­ing’s new oc­cu­pants once lived on but, hope­fully, will not re­turn to.

The VA of­fi­cially opened Build­ing 209 on Thurs­day to pro­vide long-term ther­a­peu­tic hous­ing and other ser­vices to 65 for­merly chron­i­cally home­less vet­er­ans — 20 of them women — who have strug­gled with men­tal prob­lems or ad­dic­tions or a com­bi­na­tion. Of course, this is just a frac­tion of the hous­ing needed by the more than 4,300 home­less vet­er­ans in Los An­ge­les County. And as great as it is to see this once va­cant build­ing trans­formed into an invit­ing res­i­dence with sta­teof-the-art ameni­ties, it took a decade — be­gin­ning with for­mer Santa Mon­ica Mayor Bobby Shriver’s lob­by­ing for re­vi­tal­iz­ing that build­ing and oth­ers — for the project to go from idea to au­tho­riza­tion to fund­ing to ren­o­va­tion to com­ple­tion.

That glacial pace was once the hall­mark of ev­ery­thing the VA did. But in re­cent months VA of­fi­cials have shown a promis­ing and sig­nif­i­cant shift in at­ti­tude, ex­press­ing a sense of ur­gency about pro­vid­ing hous­ing and ser­vices to home­less vet­er­ans on the West L.A. cam­pus and be­yond. Six months af­ter tak­ing the cabi­net post in July 2014, new VA Sec­re­tary Robert McDon­ald set­tled a long-stand­ing law­suit over leases to out­side in­ter­ests on the cam­pus, which was in­tended only to serve the needs of vet­er­ans. Later this month, the VA will an­nounce the launch of the mas­ter plan process that will re­vamp the cam­pus, with vet­eran and com­mu­nity in­put, to make it more vet­eran-cen­tered.

The agency must keep up that pace, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to hous­ing home­less vet­er­ans — and Los An­ge­les County has the largest home­less vet­eran pop­u­la­tion in the coun­try.

Nei­ther the VA nor vet­er­ans’ ad­vo­cates in­volved in de­vel­op­ing the mas­ter plan be­lieve that the cam­pus can or should house all of them. How­ever, the 387-acre cam­pus can ac­com­mo­date more than 65 home­less vet­er­ans. The VA agrees and says it will pri­or­i­tize hous­ing fe­male vets who have ex­pe­ri­enced trauma and aging vets who need med­i­cal ser­vices.

The VA also sup­ports leg­is­la­tion to al­low per­ma­nent sup­port­ive hous­ing on the cam­pus, to tar­get par­tic­u­larly needy home­less vet­er­ans. The cam­pus has the un­der­uti­lized build­ings, coun­sel­ing ser­vices and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties to of­fer chron­i­cally home­less vets the new start they need to get off the streets. Even if that means hous­ing vets for in­def­i­nite pe­ri­ods of time, the VA should do it.

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