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Veterans Row: A Microcosm of Our Homelessness Crisis  

Military veterans housed in encampment on Veterans Row - Photo by Zaydee Sanchez

LOS ANGELES

UNHOUSED VETERANS - It was the summer of 2020 when about two dozen tents sprung up outside the gates surrounding the Veteran Administration’s sprawling West Los Angeles Medical Center campus. The tents, which all had a matching American flag pinned to the exterior, stood out in the otherwise tony neighborhood “Brentwood,” home to some of Los Angeles’ wealthiest residents. These tents were a silent protest by veterans who were drawing attention to the VA’s misuse of land intended to help them. 

Veterans Row became a symbol of the growing population of homeless veterans in Los Angeles, which, at 3,500, is the largest population of homeless veterans of any city in the country. California houses a third of the nation’s homeless veteran population. Veterans Row reflects the struggle veterans face to find housing. The solution to the Veterans Row homelessness encampment exemplifies how this problem can be addressed when resources are pooled together. The VA West Los Angeles managed to house the most veterans of any VA in the country. 

Some activists say Mayor Bass has focused too much on clearing tents rather than moving individuals into permanent housing. A resident of the VA West LA since October 2022, Elroy L., praised Mayor Bass’ efforts to address homelessness, stating, “The mayor is doing the best she can with addressing homelessness.” He said that his current housing situation meets his needs until he moves into a HUD VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) apartment. HUD VASH is a collaborative program between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which combines HUD vouchers with VA support services to help veterans find permanent housing. 

The land that the VA West Los Angeles sits on was donated to the federal government as a home for Civil War veterans in 1887. However, in the 1970s, the VA started leasing land to commercial enterprises, which was not intended for veteran use. The 387-acre land, donated by Arcadia Bandini de Stearns Baker, became the subject of many lawsuits when it started leasing land for profit. 

This included the leasing of land for a UCLA baseball stadium and Brentwood School, neither of which benefited veterans. The land also housed a golf course, oil well, and bird sanctuary. 

In the 1980s, Los Angeles’ homeless population started to grow. By 1984, a Housing and Urban Development Study estimated that Los Angeles had between 31-38,000 homeless individuals. 

Veterans' groups sued the VA in 2015 for misuse of land, but the VA settled the lawsuit with an agreement to repurpose land to benefit homeless veterans. After the lawsuit, the VA promised to build 1,200 housing units for veterans. However, the VA failed to keep up with their agreement. 

After veterans and advocates returned to the courtroom to argue that the VA failed to keep up with their agreement to provide housing, the VA offered a concession for unhoused veterans to set up three-foot-high pup tents in an asphalt area on the VA campus. However, during the pandemic, services were cut in half. Consequently, the VA stopped admitting new veterans, with many being left on the streets. 

During the summer of 2020, during the pandemic, homeless veterans started placing tents along the VA West Los Angeles Medical Center to protest the misuse of the land. By August 2020, about two dozen identical tents had popped up. During the pandemic, Veterans Row was recognized as a line of tents across San Vicente Boulevard, surrounding the medical center.  

Veterans Row gained visibility, notably after two homicides occurred. On a Wednesday morning, Sept. 15, 2021, a homeless veteran living in the encampment surrounding the VA was stabbed to death. The Los Angeles County sheriff arrested an unhoused man in connection with the attack. Paramedics took the injured man, who was eventually pronounced dead. 

On Oct. 20, 2021, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said the department would house 40 veterans from Veterans Row by November. On Nov. 1, 2021, a large truck arrived at Veterans Row to help homeless veterans move their belongings into storage. Signs were posted in the area where a cleanup was scheduled for Monday. 

In November 2021, the LA County Sheriff’s and LA County Public Works Department began clearing the tents off Veterans Row. This move was sparked by two homicides occurring in the last six months. Groups like the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, the regional planning body that coordinates housing and services for homeless individuals, initiated a transition relocation program to rehouse veterans who had previously lived there. Some homeless veterans were moved to tents inside the VA campus. Others were moved to dorms on the campus, tiny homes, and housing with Project Roomkey, a statewide initiative to secure hotel and motel rooms for individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Today, there are no more tents lining the VA. There is a gated entrance and common benches where veterans housed in the VA gather. The VA looks unrecognizable to what it was during the pandemic. 

Mayor Karen Bass was sworn into office on December 11, 2022. During the first six months of her administration, 14,381 previously homeless individuals were moved into housing. However, the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count showed a 10 percent jump in the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in the city of Los Angeles. 

The 2023 LAHSA homeless count in Los Angeles revealed that 46,260 Angelenos experience homelessness. Los Angeles has the most homeless veterans of any city in the country. Based on the 2023 annual homeless count, Los Angeles alone has 3,500 homeless veterans. California houses a third of the nation’s homeless veterans. 

As of April 2023, the VA West Los Angeles campus contained 233 supportive permanent housing units. The goal is to have 500 units by the end of 2024. 

Sitting right near L. is a combat veteran and VA resident, Jose M. “I’ve been under the wires for 20 years,” said the Vietnam veteran, who has dealt with housing instability on and off since he was discharged.   

While both L. and M. are in temporary housing at the VA, they seek to move into permanent housing when possible. 

The VA West Los Angeles permanently housed 1,790 veterans by the end of 2023, the most of any VA in the U.S. This was a 38% increase over last year’s total of 1,301, surpassing their original 2023 goal of permanently housing 1,500 veterans. 

Since Governor Newsom took office, his administration has spent $28 billion to reform California’s mental health system. A similar measure to Proposition 1 passed in 2018, called “No Place Like Home.” No Place Like Home fell short of its promise to build 20,000 supportive housing units. 

This past March primary asked Californians to vote on Proposition 1, a $6.3 billion bond measure that would overhaul spending on homelessness and mental health services. It would shift $140 million annually in existing tax revenue from county to state mental health and addiction treatment providers. 

Proposition 1 would fund behavioral health treatment and residential facilities. Proposition 1 would also fund supportive housing for veterans with behavioral health conditions at risk of experiencing homelessness. Proposition 1 would set aside $1.05 billion in permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans. Proposition 1 is projected to fund 4,350 units of affordable housing, 2,350 of which would be set aside for veterans. 

Proposition 1 narrowly passed by a 0.38 percentage point margin, the eighth-closest statewide ballot measure result since 1908. Following Proposition 1’s victory, Governor Newsom said, “This is the biggest change in decades in how California tackles homelessness, and a victory for doing things radically different.” 

 

(Graham Miller is a rising junior at Loyola Marymount University, majoring in political science, interested in housing and homelessness policy. A Los Angeles native, Graham is committed to tackling the city's homelessness crisis and securing affordable housing for its residents.)

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