SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The idea that no U.S. military veterans should live on the streets of America is the rare cause that's popular across the political spectrum. And over the last decade, federal and local governments have been able to reduce the number of homeless veterans in the country by almost half. But as Anna Scott from member station KCRW reports, the problem is far from over.
ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Nearly 4,000 homeless veterans still live in LA County. During the pandemic, about 40 of them set up camp on one sidewalk just outside a nearly-400-acre campus owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs. And they recently got a high-profile visitor, VA Secretary Denis McDonough.
DENIS MCDONOUGH: Let's get you into housing tonight, OK?
BRIAN HELIP: And so - yes.
MCDONOUGH: Then we'll work everything else.
SCOTT: That's McDonough speaking to Navy veteran Brian Helip.
HELIP: I want to see the rest of the men...
HELIP: ...Taken care of.
MCDONOUGH: Let's get you into housing tonight.
HELIP: Thank you for everyone...
MCDONOUGH: OK, Brian.
HELIP: ...Being here today. God bless.
MCDONOUGH: Thank you, guys. I appreciate it.
HELIP: I'm sorry.
MCDONOUGH: All right, thank you.
SCOTT: Helip tells me he hopes to go into a hotel room for the night.
HELIP: I've been out here now seven years.
SCOTT: Here is Brentwood, an upscale area on LA's Westside, where various celebrities - and even Vice President Kamala Harris - own homes. It abuts the VA campus, where, for the last five years, the federal government has been working on a plan to create more than 1,200 apartments for homeless and needy veterans. But only 54 units have opened. McDonough says he'll accelerate that.
MCDONOUGH: I'm not looking back much on, you know, who's to blame for what. I'm looking forward on how I get this done. And my job as secretary is to keep my foot on the gas, and I'm going to do that.
SCOTT: To do that, he'll need to push through some of the roadblocks that have stymied progress so far, like the need for costly and complicated water and sewer upgrades. But some say the glacial pace of ongoing construction - 54 units in five years - demonstrates a lack of political will. That's why activist and politician Bobby Shriver helped organize a lawsuit against the VA to force them to create the housing in the first place.
BOBBY SHRIVER: It was the absurdity of the empty buildings with vets sleeping basically under the freeway 50 feet away. Like, how can that be? It's just absurd.
SCOTT: What's really needed now, he says, is action from the highest levels of the federal government.
SHRIVER: President Biden and Secretary McDonough - they have to get the bureaucracy out of the way - and Vice President Harris, who, as you know, lives down the street from this property. So she needs to push a button and say, I want that done in my community, and I want it done now.
SCOTT: Homeless Navy veteran Brian Helip, who met McDonough, is also tired of the stalling.
HELIP: People say they want to house people, but they keep using every excuse why not to.
SCOTT: He could go now into one of the many temporary shelter and treatment beds on the West Los Angeles campus, but he wants something permanent. And according to the VA, it could take another decade to finish building the 1,200 promised apartments.
For NPR news, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles.
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