Los Angeles Community Pushes Plan to House Homeless Vets

Veterans make up as much as a quarter of all homeless people in Los Angeles County. But a project on the huge West Los Angeles Veteran's Administration campus hopes to help homeless vets get off the street.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

We've been talking this week about the chronically homeless. And today, we focus on homeless veterans.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the largest concentrations of homeless vets is here in Los Angeles. And on any given day or night, at least 500 of them can be found at the beach in Santa Monica. Among them, Jim Sanders. He told us he's 51 and he served with the Marines in the Gulf War. We found him seated across the street from a community drop-in center that offers a free lunch to the homeless everyday.

Mr. JIM SANDERS (Homeless Veteran): Yeah. You can get all the peanut butter and jelly you can eat. Oh, you might get a cookie, too. So that's always a benefit.

MONTAGNE: What do you do for three meals a day? What do they serve, just one meal over there?

Mr. SANDERS: I've ate out of garbage cans. I've picked up cans and bottles.

MONTAGNE: Yeah?

Mr. SANDERS: And that's how you survive.

MONTAGNE: We talked for a while about his life on the street. And then our conversation takes an odd, disconcerting turn. Jim Sanders begins to cry, as he tells of a moment during combat, seeing his buddy blown apart right next to him, and how he himself was shot. Then he offers this.

Mr. SANDERS: So they took me into the east lawn of the White House. And all I remember, your president, not mine, he said, for meritory service above and beyond the call of duty, we award you the Congressional Medal of Honor. And I said, yes, sir.

MONTAGNE: The Department of Defense has no record of a Jim Sanders receiving such an honor. Homeless advocates say that of the 250,000 chronically homeless in America, veterans are particularly prone to mental illness and substance abuse.

Just a few miles inland, the Veterans Administration offers help in a corner of its sprawling West Los Angeles campus. The nonprofit project is called New Directions. It provides temporary housing combined with intense treatment for mental illness, drugs, alcohol abuse, plus education and job counseling. Dale Adams is a case manager there. He's also a former resident. After a long stint in the Army, he suffered a downward spiral. He managed to recover and now he counsels 19 residents.

Sitting under a shade tree, looking across a broad green lawn to a rose garden, I remarked that, it feels so peaceful here.

Mr. DALE ADAMS (Case Manager, New Directions): When you walk up, it's a very inviting place. You hear small conversation, some laughter. But it's also a lot of pain here, a lot of work that you have to do in order to recover. And sometimes it may not have that appearance. There's a struggle for your life.

MONTAGNE: And you were in that circumstance yourself?

Mr. ADAMS: Yes, I was. I had went through homelessness for about two years, going in and out of shelters after a 31-year history of substance abuse. I served in Desert Storm, and came back and it was hard for me to cope. Being in the military and being highly structured, and then coming home to no structure, it was just difficult to adjust.

MONTAGNE: Dale Adams says he tried civilian social services, but they couldn't provide the help he needed. For him, the connection to other veterans made the difference.

Mr. ADAMS: Here was a mixture of Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and we're all got this common goal. And I just believed in what they were doing. They asked me to take more responsibility and they put more responsibility on me. And so, you know, you're talking to someone who hadn't had a car in 20 years. You know, after service and didn't have a place to stay, and now I live in a home with my family. And I have a car.

MONTAGNE: Caseworker Dale Adams is one of the many success stories at New Directions. Now some advocates have proposed that the V.A. offer permanent housing for homeless vets. There are three, large, empty buildings on this V.A. campus. And Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Bobby Shriver is spearheading a proposal to put those buildings to use.

Mayor BOBBY SHRIVER (Pro Tem, Santa Monica): These buildings are old buildings. They are empty. They have been empty for many years. We want them to be put back together. We want nonprofits to go in there on a clinically basis and run them. And it's interesting. L.A. is the homeless capital of America. There are 92,000 homeless individuals in Los Angeles, and we want the homeless vets who are in both downtown L.A. and Santa Monica, in fact, all over Greater L.A. to be housed there.

MONTAGNE: Can you give us a quick nutshell of what the numbers are and what the issues are with homeless vets nationally?

Mayor SHRIVER: They're very fuzzy figures. People estimate them between 10 and 30 percent of the national homeless population. And, obviously, that would vary depending on the part of the country, and so forth. In L.A., I've heard 20 percent. So on 92,000 people, that would be 18,000 or so, homeless veterans right here in Los Angeles. Some of them have combat traumas. Some of them have drug addiction, alcoholism. Some of them are just, you know, fellows who are down - or women who are just down on their luck.

MONTAGNE: What about the neighbors? There has been objections by the neighbors, who might, realistically, worry about having so many homeless - veterans, albeit - but so many homeless living right next door?

Mayor SHRIVER: They're very concerned. And they're rightly concerned. They want to make sure it's done professionally. They want to know what kinds of homeless veterans. They want to make sure they don't have thousands of severely mentally ill people put in there without security, for example. And I think the V.A. and the providers, once they get the designation, will be able to answer those questions.

And what I've said to them is said, look, what I'm trying to do is get the buildings designated for a veteran's use. I'm just trying to hold on to these buildings as a use for homeless veterans, the weakest people. I don't want to find these buildings full of offices, or full of private sector people doing private sector business up here, while homeless vets are sleeping on the beach in Santa Monica, or in downtown L.A. I don't think it's right. And there's a danger that that will happen; that the private sector people will go up there and get those buildings. It's possible. There's a lot of money in play, you know. It's the center of L.A. This is valuable land.

MONTAGNE: Valuable land, right next to UCLA.

Mayor SHRIVER: Yeah. I mean, it's a worth…

MONTAGNE: Big, beautiful, green…

Mayor SHRIVER: Incredible. Incredible piece of land, so the pressure to get a hold of that kind of land, the money behind it, is enormous.

MONTAGNE: But…

Mayor SHRIVER: And there's no money behind the homeless vets. I'll tell you that.

MONTAGNE: Government figures do show that 10 percent of homeless veterans across the country are from either the Iraq War or from the Gulf War. I think that might surprise people. Do you think because there's this war going on, that this would be a good time to be pushing for something like this?

Mayor SHRIVER: Absolutely! There's the war out there. There's the governor has formed a council on homelessness…

MONTAGNE: The governor, you brother-in-law…

Mayor SHRIVER: Yes.

MONTAGNE: …fair to say?

Mayor SHRIVER: The great Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has got - appointed some people to focus on this. We've got an administration, I think, and the secretary of the V.A., who is a decent fellow and who is going to try to do some stuff. So we have in L.A. now a moment - these things happen in politics and life, you know, timing.

MONTAGNE: Bobby Shriver is the mayor pro tem of Santa Monica. Regarding his proposal, we heard yesterday from Pete Daugherty, who runs homeless veterans programs for the V.A. He said this proposal is one of at least 15 under review, and that it is possible leases will be granted for uses that would generate revenue, that would benefit veterans indirectly. The V.A. hopes to have a decision by year's end.

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