You didn’t hear a word about homeless veterans in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech this past January and chances are you won’t hear anything from him about those vets next month, either, unless it’s a boilerplate homage for their contributions to American freedom.
But homeless veterans are a major national problem, and an even larger one in California, where an estimated 18,000 live on the streets of Los Angeles County alone, perhaps as many as 40,000 statewide.
And yet, hundreds of beds in veterans homes are empty today. It’s true those veterans homes, mostly run by the state Department of Veterans Affairs, are intended as both skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, not as homeless shelters. Nevertheless, it’s logical to wonder why those vacant beds can’t be pressed into service for veterans in desperate need of quarters.
There are also open questions about whether the largest and most valuable piece of real estate in this state intended solely for the use of veterans will ever be used to anything approaching its capacity – or whether much of it will be sold off as a momentary deficit-easing tactic.
More than 300 acres at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Center are used far below their capacity, something that has drawn the eye of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who tried to insert a selloff into this year’s budget negotiations.
The draw for Cantor and others is that the mostly undeveloped VA land bounded by the Interstate 405 San Diego Freeway and busy Wilshire Boulevard, with multiple high-rises soaring upward nearby, could bring at least $5 billion.
This has long tempted a selloff, despite the terms of the original 1887 land donation by onetime Nevada Republican Sen. John P. Jones and his partner Arcadia B. de Baker, which required the land be used strictly “for the benefit of veterans.” Jones, a real estate developer and co-founder of the city of Santa Monica who made his fortune in silver mining, had Civil War veterans in mind, not knowing homelessness would be a major veterans’ problem 125 years later.
It is, and not even several new California Veterans Homes constructed over the past 10 years with a combination of federal funds and state bond money are helping much. As an example, only 87 of the 396 beds in the West Los Angeles CalVet home were occupied as of last month. Brand-new homes in Redding and Fresno, with 450 beds between them, were empty because state budget woes have prevented hiring any staff. No occupants are expected there until late this year at the earliest.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, himself a Vietnam veteran, and former Santa Monica Mayor Bobby Shriver, whose sister Maria was the state’s First Lady for seven years, several years ago identified three mostly derelict buildings at the West Los Angeles site that could be rehabilitated and used by homeless veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental and emotional ills. Only one of those buildings has seen any activity, with $50 million appropriated to fix it up, but no work yet done.
Rosendahl blasted Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles County – the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee – in an interview. “They just have not done nearly enough either to save the VA land or to house needy veterans,” he said. “Someone needs to light a fire under them.”
Waxman, whose district includes the West Los Angeles site, calls veterans’ homelessness “a huge problem and terrible.” He acknowledges, “We have failed our veterans.” But he insisted in a telephone interview that “the real threat we face is selling the land to reduce debt and not using it to help veterans.”
He says a new law, which some veterans’ activists claim allows selling off the land, actually precludes ever selling it. “A lot of the veterans’ concerns are just inaccurate,” he said. “But I do share the worry about commercializing that land.”
Veterans’ activists also complain that few of their fellow former soldiers even know about the CalVet beds now languishing. “There’s been almost no marketing,” complains John Aaron of Pacific Palisades. Echoing Rosendahl, he added, “The politicians just have not done enough.”
Waxman says he’s “all for using the empty beds for homeless veterans. I will push the Department of Veterans Affairs to do it. We did get the VA to issue vouchers for veterans to use in the community and we were getting some into housing, but the VA has stopped issuing those recently. The gap is due to VA bureaucracy. We push and push, but they seem unable to move. It’s inexcusable that they’ve stopped issuing the vouchers.”
The bottom line: There really is no excuse when politicians say they’re trying to help veterans and then point fingers at others, while thousands of veterans keep living on California’s streets.
Thomas Elias is a California author. Reach him at [email protected]