VA seeks to help homeless veterans in Los Angeles

A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk next to a prepared downtown lot where the new Los Angeles United States Courthouse was supposed to be built.
A homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk next to a prepared downtown lot where the new Los Angeles United States Courthouse was supposed to be built. David McNew/Getty Images

The debate rages over how well the federal Department of Veterans Affairs helps the more than 8,000 homeless men and women living on the streets of Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the VA. It accused the agency of failing to provide adequate help to homeless vets at its sprawling 400-acre West L.A. campus.

“Veterans groups and organizations have been pleading with the VA to provide permanent supportive housing so that these vets can get access to the necessary services,” ACLU Attorney Mark Rosenbaum said. “Every administration has turned its back on these vets.”

Partly in response to the lawsuit, the VA has ended the practice of renting out part of the West L.A. campus property to rental car companies and other commercial enterprises.

VA officials have said they’ve also secured money for more supportive housing and expanded outreach programs, as part of the agency's ambitious goal to end veteran homelessness by 2014.

“The VA over the past several years has become much more accessible to more people,” Chief of Mental Health Bill Daniels told KPCC.

As part of the VA's homeless outreach program, veteran Thomas Esparza, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), now helps other veterans who end up on the streets. He described the challenges of reaching out to Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

“A lot of them are not willing to admit they have a mental health issue because they don’t want to be ‘crazy’ at a young age,” Esparza said. “As soon as you say ‘mental health,’ they’re ‘no, no, no.’ They don’t want to be labeled.”

Vietnam veterans, he said, are especially difficult to reach. They are distrustful of government, and often have allowed themselves to deteriorate.

“Most of the time their dogs look better than the veterans do.”

Audio: Take a trip to ground zero in the VA’s homeless outreach program.

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