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Plan to House Homeless Vets Pending Decision

By Constance Tillotson
Special to The Lookout

May 1 -- Supporters, as well as opponents, of a plan to house 500 homeless vets on the Veterans Administration grounds in Westwood are stepping up lobbying efforts in Washington, where a final decision is pending.

Spearheaded by Santa Monica Council member Bobby Shriver, the proposal would designate three vacant buildings to house some of the 17,000 veterans who sleep on the streets of Los Angeles County.

Shriver has been on the frontlines, lobbying top local and state decision makers and reaching out for public support to influence the decision, which will be made by Secretary of Veterans Affairs, R. James Nicholson and the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services Commission (CARES).

“Lobbying this is the number one game in town,” said Shriver. “It is up to the local people to write more letters to office of Jim Nicholson demonstrating their support. This includes all the top local, state and civic leaders.”

Several top local leaders have spoken up in favor of the project. Los Angeles Council member Bill Rosendahl, West Hollywood Council member Jeffrey Prang, Culver City Council member Carol Gross and Santa Monica Council member Richard Bloom have all actively sought community support.

“The City of West Hollywood sent a letter of support,” said Prang. “When land is allocated for a purpose that should mean something.

“It is unbelievable that as a country we allow hundreds of thousands of people to live on the streets, people who are ill, elderly and even children,” Prang said. “There is a level of compassion but there is a fundamental failure of the government to respond.”

But financial forces and opposition from nearby residents could jeopardize the plan.

Developers are eyeing the 387-acre campus as a financial windfall if they can tear down the existing buildings and develop million dollar condominiums on the prime Westside real estate. A drug distributor also has set its sites on the property.

In addition, residents who live near the facility have been fighting back with a lobbying effort of their own. Members of the Brentwood Homeowner’s Association (BHA) have been gathering signatures on a petition they will send to Secretary Nicholson.

Homeowners have also mounted a letter-writing campaign. One letter sent states that Shriver’s plan does not allow for continual services or transitional housing.

BHA board member Ray Klein said the proposal appears to be a “housing first” program, meaning the housing will be reserved for the chronically homeless. Opponents fear addicts will be allowed admittance into the center without the proper treatment required for detoxification.

Shriver has met with Brentwood residents to clear up any misconceptions about his proposal and said he has tried to reassure them this will not bring homeless people onto their front yards. “But I do not think they were convinced,” Shriver said.

Others view the Brentwood response as typical for any community facing the prospect of a homeless facility in their area.

“You could write a book on the automatic, standard response from neighborhood opposition,” said Prang. “Arguments are identical. They have compassion about the problem, but do not want it in their own neighborhoods. They want it sent somewhere else.”

A recent decision passed down by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals may help Shriver’s cause. The court has deemed that if there are not enough beds available at service agencies, the Los Angeles Police Department does not have the legal right to arrest a person for sleeping on the streets.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) asked cities vying for the $1.2 billion in federal aid to provide statistics when applying for grants. As a result, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) conducted a census of the homeless last year that found there are approximately 88,000 homeless in Los Angeles County.

Local officials contend they need more funding if LAHSA’s plan to eliminate homelessness in the next ten years will have a chance to succeed. They note that Los Angeles is receiving half the federal funds that New York receives for the same number of homeless people.

But Shriver notes that the plan to house homeless vets would not require tax dollars. “There will be no taxpayer dollars used on this,” he said. “This is a land mass issue.”

If the proposal is approved, the local VA will meet with non-profit organizations who will write their own proposals on how they would deliver the needed services, Shriver said.

The VA in West Los Angeles was deeded in 1888 for the sole purpose of housing the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers.

The ages of the 91 structures on the grounds range from 2 to 107 years, with a seven-story, 900,000-square-foot hospital built in 1976 being the largest of the structures. Eleven of the buildings are currently vacant.

Currently, New Directions -- the long-term drug and alcohol treatment center for veterans -- houses 100 formerly homeless vets on the VA grounds in Westwood.

The organization, which has been on the VA campus since 1992, provides counsel to help individuals overcome anti-social and criminal behaviors, develop employable skills and acquire positive self-values.

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