For home­less vets, home

VA un­veils the fa­cil­ity as a step to­ward get­ting vet­er­ans off the streets.

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - By Martha Groves martha.groves @la­ Twit­ter: @MarthaGroves

The smile never left Keith Hud­son’s face, even when he spoke of his di­vorce and his de­scent into al­co­holism and home­less­ness. In his blue dress shirt, tie and slacks, he could have passed for the para­le­gal that he once was and hopes to be again.

Hud­son, 52, now has a home, a job and a fu­ture — all be­cause of an ef­fort launched more than a decade ago to con­vert an un­der­used build­ing on the West Los An­ge­les Vet­er­ans Af­fairs cam­pus into res­i­dences for chron­i­cally home­less vet­er­ans in need of med­i­cal or men­tal health treat­ment.

“When I walked into this build­ing,” the Army vet­eran said, “it was like one of those movies when you walk through a cloud and you’re like: ‘Whoa! Wow!’ Ev­ery­thing was state of the art, brand new. It’s like an apart­ment com­plex and a fives­tar ho­tel com­bined into one, with all the ameni­ties.”

Af­ter years of de­bate, in­ac­tion, fund­ing de­lays and a high-pro­file law­suit filed on be­half of vet­er­ans, Build­ing 209 — the new­est hous­ing for vet­er­ans on the cam­pus — fi­nally had its un­veil­ing last week.

It fea­tures a soar­ing atrium en­trance, a fit­ness room, a large kitchen where vets can learn culi­nary skills, communal sit­ting ar­eas, WiFi and 55 sin­gle- and dou­bleoc­cu­pancy units that will house a to­tal of 65 vet­er­ans. A few units on the up­per floor have ocean views. Twenty women will live in a se­cure wing with an exit to a “seren­ity gar­den.”

Leo A. Daly, a noted ar­chi­tec­tural firm, de­signed the $20-mil­lion ren­o­va­tion and seis­mic up­grade of the 51,000-square-foot build­ing, one of many on the cam­pus that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has deemed his­toric. The work took about two years.

Out­side, stair­ways and ramps lead through a nascent gar­den to the en­trance. The three-story build­ing, which had long sat nearly empty, stands in stark con­trast to much of the rest of the largely ne­glected cam­pus.

Hud­son’s fur­nished onebed­room apart­ment comes with a TV, a living room and a kitchen, where the am­a­teur chef in­tends to spend much of his time per­fect­ing recipes taught him by his Chi­nese, Chero­kee and African Amer­i­can rel­a­tives.

Los An­ge­les County has long had the largest con­cen­tra­tion of home­less vet­er­ans in the coun­try — more than 4,300 in the lat­est count. Two-thirds of them live in the city.

Hud­son rou­tinely slept on benches in the west­ern San Fer­nando Val­ley, count­ing on his mar­tial arts skills to fend off dan­ger.

About a year ago, he en­tered a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram at the VA and lived in a domi­cil­iary with five room­mates.

U.S. Depart­ment of Vet- er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary Robert A. McDon­ald, who at­tended the open­ing, said that af­ter start­ing his job in July, he looked into the 2011 law­suit filed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union and Public Coun­sel against the West Los An­ge­les VA. The suit al­leged that the VA was fail­ing to live up to its obli­ga­tion to use the land to pro­vide hous­ing.

While serv­ing as a Santa Mon­ica city coun­cil­man, Bobby Shriver helped pro­pel the lit­i­ga­tion.

McDon­ald, the re­tired chief ex­ec­u­tive of Proc­ter & Gam­ble, and Shriver’s brother Tim are friends, and McDon­ald said the fam­ily con­nec­tion con­trib­uted to his in­ter­est.

“It didn’t make sense,” McDon­ald said of the law­suit. “We were be­ing sued for not car­ing for vet­er­ans, which is our mission.”

McDon­ald sat the two sides down and in Jan­uary an­nounced a legal set­tle­ment un­der which the VA agreed to trans­form the sprawl­ing cam­pus into a cen­ter of per­ma­nent hous­ing for home­less vet­er­ans and to cur­tail the con­tro­ver­sial prac­tice of leas­ing VA fa­cil­i­ties to cor­po­ra­tions and other non-gov­ern­ment en­ti­ties.

The open­ing of Build­ing 209 marked a tan­gi­ble step for­ward, he said.

Vet­er­ans stay­ing at the fa­cil­ity will re­ceive job train­ing and sup­port­ive ser­vices, with the goal of mov­ing into per­ma­nent hous­ing else­where. And they will be paid for the work they do.

Hud­son, for ex­am­ple, is a house­keeper in the VA hos­pi­tal on the cam­pus.

Two nearby build­ings — 205 and 208 — are also to be­come tran­si­tional hous­ing.

“Have we solved the prob­lem of home­less­ness in Los An­ge­les? No,” McDon­ald said. “Are we mak­ing progress? Yes.”

Lo­cal and fed­eral of­fi­cials have made a com­mit­ment to end­ing vet­er­ans’ home­less­ness in the county by the end of the year as part of a na­tional goal led by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

On Fri­day, McDon­ald, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the United Way of Greater Los An­ge­les kicked off an ef­fort to iden­tify 1,000 new units this year for vet­er­ans in need of hous­ing.

In a state­ment, they said a com­mit­ment from mar­ke­trate land­lords will­ing to ac- cept vet­er­ans with hous­ing vouch­ers would be the “crit­i­cal last step” to hous­ing vet­er­ans who are al­ready on the streets and oth­ers who will be­come home­less.

More than a decade ago, Shriver helped lead the push to ear­mark Build­ing 209 and two other un­der­used struc­tures on the cam­pus for hous­ing.

At the time, he thought the trans­for­ma­tion would be easy, but it took years to get just one up and run­ning.

In a post­ing on Face­book, Shriver said he was thrilled to see the re­sults but added that he felt sad and an­gry — “sad for all the vets who needed this hous­ing over the decades that the build­ing stood va­cant.… An­gry be­cause po­lit­i­cal lead­ers had the power to make this hap­pen decades ago!”

As Hud­son sur­veyed his spa­cious, clean quar­ters, it was clear that sad­ness and anger had been re­placed by re­lief and joy — and the pos­si­bil­ity that he might soon re­turn to the para­le­gal work he en­joyed in years past. “It feels so good,” he said.

Pho­tog raphs by Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

KEITH HUD­SON opens a jar of fruit in his new kitchen. In Jan­uary, the VA set­tled a law­suit by the ACLU and Public Pol­icy and agreed to trans­form the cam­pus into a cen­ter of per­ma­nent hous­ing for home­less vet­er­ans.

THE FA­CIL­ITY in­cludes a “seren­ity gar­den.” Ren­o­va­tion and seis­mic up­grade of the three-story build­ing cost $20 mil­lion and took about two years.

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