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A reclaimed VA campus in West LA could help with the city's homelessness crisis

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The best chance at turning around veterans homelessness may be on some of the country's most expensive real estate in West Los Angeles. The sprawling VA campus there was donated to Civil War veterans in 1887, but veterans have spent years trying to reclaim parts of the campus through lawsuits, corruption trials, and recently, a homeless veterans encampment at the gates of the VA. Now, NPR's Quil Lawrence reports the campus may finally be on track to house hundreds of LA's homeless vets.

ALEJANDRO ROCHA: Homeless veterans outreach. Any veterans by chance?

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: I'm walking down Hollywood Boulevard with some vets who do this for a living, Alejandro Rocha and John Follmer.

JOHN FOLLMER: Good morning, veterans services. Good morning, any veterans here? Do you happen to know any military veterans in the area?

LAWRENCE: It doesn't take long. They meet an Army vet in his late 40s named Chris Brown.

ROCHA: Man, if you guys...

CHRIS BROWN: I was Eleven Bravo.

ROCHA: Eleven Bravo? Me, too.

LAWRENCE: Eleven Bravo means infantry. These guys speak the same language. Brown is leaning on a broken bed frame he used as a shelter last night.

BROWN: I've been outside since 2010. So, you know, I've been out, you know...

LAWRENCE: LA has by far the most homeless vets in the country, almost 4,000 by the yearly national count. The crazy thing is, it also has among the country's largest VA facilities, a 387-acre campus in affluent West LA that was donated as a home for veterans of the Civil War. Follmer and Rocha have thoughts about it.

ROCHA: We have a lot of activism over giving the land back to the vets.

FOLLMER: Becomes a social justice issue.

LAWRENCE: Because for decades, much of the land use had nothing to do with veterans.

FOLLMER: They're supposed to use the campus to serve the veteran community.

ROCHA: So, like, you can't build anything on a foundation of neglect.

LAWRENCE: That neglect is common knowledge for LA veterans. A fancy private high school leases some of the VA's land for its gym. UCLA built its baseball stadium on the campus. There's a golf course and an oil well. The VA settled a lawsuit in 2015 and agreed to build hundreds of housing units for vets but then only managed to build dozens, and the VA is being sued again. Now, however, years behind schedule, a significant number of vets are finally living here. Steve Peck served in Vietnam. He leads the veterans group U.S. Vets, part of a consortium developing buildings for housing on the campus, including the one he's showing me around.

STEVE PECK: The first building that we developed, that was for senior vets 62 and older, half of them for veterans who had severe mental illness. And that filled up in less than four months.

LAWRENCE: It's a 1940s Mission Revival-style building, restored stucco on the outside. Inside, it's got 59 hotel-style studios and one-bedroom apartments.

PECK: It's a nice home. They're proud to call it home. A lot of the veterans who came in here after they were here for two weeks went to the social worker and said, how long do I get to stay here?

(LAUGHTER)

PECK: And she said, this is it. This is your home.

LAWRENCE: Peck's organization railed against the VA's mismanagement for decades. He seems bemused to be defending the place now. He says much of the work over the past five years was unseen, literally underground, updating hundred-year-old infrastructure.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOOL WHIRRING)

LAWRENCE: Outside, Peck points out construction sites everywhere finally visible, with more than 200 units housing vets. The next site slated to open is for women vets with children.

PECK: It's more difficult to say, hey, you're not doing anything when we have more than 500 units already completed or in progress. We're getting there.

LAWRENCE: The plan is a real community with a village feel - a cafe, a restaurant and a new metro station - a vibrant enclave of affordable housing for vets living in the richest part of LA. Veterans have heard this before.

ROB REYNOLDS: And I think that just shows what the problem is over the years.

LAWRENCE: Rob Reynolds is an Iraq vet. When he hears about shiny new restaurants or a massive new park-and-ride garage for the metro station, he goes on high alert.

REYNOLDS: A lot of these entities that are on the land that are unrelated to veteran housing or health care have got whatever their wants are over the needs of the veterans.

LAWRENCE: Reynolds helped galvanize a community of homeless vets who started camping out at the VA's gates about three years ago. They called it Veterans Row. He says the VA still felt like a place that would always find a way to tell you no.

REYNOLDS: There was no 24-hour shelter. So you'd have veterans that were showing up in the afternoon being like, hey, I need a place to stay. And they would tell them, oh, no, come back tomorrow or the following day, but you can't stay on the property tonight. Then they would end up out in the street. They finally build up enough courage to ask for help and then get turned away, you just sever the trust, and then it makes it that much harder to get them in the next time.

LAWRENCE: Veterans Row got media attention, and the vets there felt like they had a shared mission, says Reynolds. Under that pressure, the VA brought the entire encampment inside its gates. It's now a compound of 140 basic huts, including ones that are available 24/7 for vets who turn up. Some vets have moved from there into the newly built housing on the campus. Rob Reynolds took me to one of the apartments to see Robert Canas. He's an Air Force vet.

ROBERT CANAS: What do you think of the apartment? Nice, huh? Rob, what's it been, about a month - not even.

REYNOLDS: Not even a month.

CANAS: A week, two weeks? Yeah, so...

LAWRENCE: After his service, he struggled with alcohol, among other things.

CANAS: I was drinking heavily just to fall asleep on the streets. I was drinking a lot. It wasn't until I got here that I got sobered up. So one month turned into almost now two years of being sober. However, what's sad is still finding all the obstacles here at the VA. And they antagonize you.

LAWRENCE: So Kanis is in VA housing now. He got sober after doing therapy here at VA. And he still sees the VA as an antagonist, one reason is the guy sitting in his apartment right now on the couch.

JOSHUA ERICKSON: Joshua Erickson.

LAWRENCE: Where are you from?

ERICKSON: Los Angeles, Calif.

LAWRENCE: Erickson also served in the infantry.

ERICKSON: I was, 2011 to 2013, Eleven Bravo.

LAWRENCE: Until he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan and lost one leg below the knee. He's got a brain injury and a thousand-yard stare. He's up in Kanis' new apartment to use the Wi-Fi. Erickson is still living in the tiny huts encampment because as a 100% disabled vet, he makes too much money from disability to qualify for a voucher from Housing and Urban Development - HUD.

ERICKSON: It's that I make Social Security on top of, but it's because of my disability for the leg and, you know, I got PTSD as well.

LAWRENCE: Erickson says he'd like to go to school and learn to make prostheses like the one he's wearing. He used to have three different prosthetic legs, but the others got lost or stolen while he was on the street. His buddy Kanis says this is why he's still frustrated.

CANAS: He stepped on a land mine trying to rescue another soldier. I get this beautiful apartment and he can't live here, and he even says he feels like he's not wanted here by both the community and the VA. They want you homeless and desperate.

LAWRENCE: That's how deep the distrust runs. Kanis says that while in his new VA apartment getting VA care. The VA knows it needs to fix that trust problem.

JOHN KUHN: We have people who are getting harmed now because they are afraid to get services, or they're convinced that the VA is out to get them or is evil.

LAWRENCE: John Kuhn leads VA's efforts to end homelessness in LA.

KUHN: I'm asking those veterans to get up and try again, that you have a home here. You have an opportunity here to reach out, to get the service you are entitled to. We are here. One-third of our staff are veterans.

LAWRENCE: Kuhn knows that some veterans, like Josh Erickson, are caught in the red tape. Kuhn says a veteran's disability check shouldn't count as income but says it might take action by Congress to change that rule, which sounds daunting. But Congress often comes together on veterans issues, including approving hundreds of millions of dollars for the West LA VA campus, so Kuhn is hopeful.

KUHN: We have the resources. We have the team. There's no reason for any of our veterans in LA to be homeless.

LAWRENCE: Kuhn has worked on homelessness for 30 years. LA has always had the country's highest number of vets on the streets. If the plan for this campus stays on track, Kuhn says there's no reason the VA can't house all of them.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.