LOS ANGELES — For nearly two decades, Bobby Shriver, the onetime mayor of nearby Santa Monica, would look at the sprawling Department of Veterans Affairs complex in the upscale neighborhood on the west side of Los Angeles and wonder why it could not house some of the homeless veterans who had been living in squalor in his beachside city for a generation. Many of the politicians, federal officials and wealthy residents he lobbied greeted the idea with derision.
So in 2011, he sued.
One legal victory, a glacially paced environmental study and years of negotiations later, veterans are getting homes on the 388-acre, eucalyptus-scented campus, a return to the facility’s historical roots housing disabled volunteer soldiers after the Civil War.
The master plan unfolding here is perhaps the single largest potential demonstration of the success stories emerging across the country in housing veterans experiencing homelessness, even as overall homelessness grows to crisis proportions across this city and in other expensive enclaves.
Bill Williamson, 67, who served in the Navy in Vietnam, has struggled with drugs and spent 10 years in prison. He was homeless for a year and a half before he landed a spot at the West Los Angeles campus.
“I thank God every day for the peace I have found here,” he said. “I would rather live with veterans than other people because we have a fellowship.”
Since 2010, the number of homeless veterans nationally has dropped by half, to about 37,000. Three states — Connecticut, Delaware and Virginia — say they have nearly ended veteran homelessness. Last year in the Los Angeles area, 3,878 homeless veterans were identified, a 60% decrease from 2009.
Three developers were chosen to rehabilitate existing buildings or build new ones — yielding up to 1,622 units in total. One building already houses 54 formerly homeless veterans, and 120 units are scheduled for 2021; the city is also developing an emergency shelter this year with 100 beds for homeless male veterans.
The progress is partly the result of carefully coordinated efforts between the federal and local governments, along with a federal voucher program — and a lot of money — specifically intended for veterans. The federal government spends about $6 to address veteran homelessness for every $1 spent on homeless civilians, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, even though veterans make up about 11% of the overall homeless population. (In Los Angeles overall, the number of homeless people in 2019 climbed to more than 36,000 last year, a 16% increase over the prior year.)
But the substantial improvements for homeless veterans owe just as much to the tenacity of local nonprofits and advocates like Shriver who framed the issue as a moral crisis, a view President Barack Obama embraced and helped propel.
Local advocates for veterans wish the progress here at the campus, where homeless veterans still camp outside the gates, would move faster. They are also closely watching to see if President Donald Trump, who has talked up veterans as a cornerstone of his base, will continue to emphasize the issue, given his administration’s efforts to address suicide and health care for the population.
Still, in Los Angeles County, where a housing crisis pushed voters in 2017 to approve a tax increase to support homeless people, the momentum is strong. “I think that is heavily influenced by the political winds,” said Anthony Allman, the director of outreach for Vets Advocacy, Shriver’s nonprofit, which is overseeing the effort. “The politicians and the elected officials know that they need to do something because the people who live here are concerned about it.”
From the post-Civil War era through the Korean War, the Department of Veterans Affairs in this wealthy Brentwood neighborhood housed thousands of disabled veterans. But in the 1970s, as the need for such housing waned, the government began to lease large sections of its land to neighbors, including UCLA, the upscale Brentwood School and various private enterprises.
The suit that Shriver, along with lawyer Ronald L. Olson, filed in 2011 against the Obama administration contended that those leases violated the original 1888 deed for the land.
The lawsuit enraged the leaseholders — Shriver’s daughter was attending the Brentwood School, where classmates lamented the potential loss of their playing fields thanks to her father — and in 2013, many were stunned when a judge ruled that nine leases on the campus were illegal.
Robert A. McDonald, Obama’s secretary of Veterans Affairs at the time, supported plans to build new housing for disabled and elderly veterans and for female veterans with children, despite the acrimonious process of getting there.
“My staff at the time said: ‘Don’t do anything with LA. We need to win the lawsuit,’” McDonald said. “As a former military officer, I was all about running to the gunfire, not away from it.”
Many leaseholders were ejected. An operator of a parking lot on the property was convicted of bribing a veterans department official at the site. But some large tenants negotiated deals to avoid eviction. UCLA’s baseball park is still there, as are a dog park operated by the city of Los Angeles and athletic fields used by the Brentwood School. But congressional legislation forced those tenants to start providing services for veterans, like the use of fields and legal services.
The project was a huge beneficiary of city funds, local bonds and a voucher program run jointly by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs that Congress began funding more than a decade ago in response to soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan to poor economic conditions.
Another federal program has awarded millions of dollars annually to community agencies to help find short-term housing for veterans and deliver critical services to get their lives back on track. “People were skeptical of this program at first,” said Steve Berg, the vice president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “They thought veterans had too many problems when actually it was just a string of bad luck, like losing a job, that homelessness made worse.”
In 2017, as housing became less affordable in Los Angeles and homelessness was rising sharply, city residents agreed to an increase in the sales tax to help pay for affordable units. Low-interest loans, along with housing tax credits at the state, federal and local levels, have made veteran housing projects more attractive to developers of low-income housing.
“There is no doubt in my mind that the dedication of resources from Congress during multiple administrations is at the top of the list in terms of what has been impactful,” said Dr. Keith Harris, who oversees homelessness issues for the Department of Veterans Affairs. “Our budget for this is the highest it has ever been.”
In Los Angeles, the West LA Veterans Collective anchors the effort. Thomas Safran & Associates, a real estate developer, will break ground this summer on what will become a 60-unit apartment complex. Once the redevelopment work is complete, U.S.Vets, a service organization, will step in to promote healthy, independent living.
The master plan marries housing with job training and services addressing mental health, substance abuse and other issues. It also includes elements like a coffee shop, with the goal of creating a sense of community. “We did follow a strategy that at the time was controversial,” McDonald said. “The idea of ‘Housing First’ is that you create a sort of hierarchy of needs. If you have an addiction, I need to get you in a place to be safe, then work on that.”
Similar relationships between nonprofit lenders and developers are cropping up elsewhere. After the American Legion Post in Hoboken, New Jersey, was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, the veterans rebuilding it decided to include apartments for homeless veterans.
The first six apartments were built largely with money from the city and county as well as donations, said Mark L. Villamar, the post’s finance officer, who expects that vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be used to fill the next 15.
“I think you are seeing the community as a whole feels it has an obligation to veterans,” he said. “This may be because of the way veterans are treated now as opposed to when I returned from Vietnam. This would not have happened in the ’70s.”
The effect of the lawsuit over the land in West Los Angeles has spread far beyond that campus. A Veterans Affairs site in Menlo Park, California, is now home to a 60-unit housing development for veterans, another project where federal vouchers and a partnership with low-income-housing developers have played a central role.
“If we had not sued them, we would not be where we are,” Shriver said. “It galvanized everyone in the community. Progressive Democrats slow-walked this forever, and it kind of stunned me. But what we failed to do was force them to build the community sooner.”