Just outside the West L.A. Veterans Affairs facility near Brentwood, dozens of tents line San Vicente Boulevard.
Many of them have wheelchairs parked outside. They’re draped with American flags — each representing a homeless U.S. veteran who lives inside.
“If America is ‘home of the brave’ why are the brave homeless?” a sign hanging in the encampment reads.
Dubbed “Veterans Row,” the encampment is home to dozens of veterans who have served in the Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and Gulf wars, according to outreach workers.
Franklin Cloud, a 74-year-old Vietnam war veteran, has lived in one of the tents with his wife for months after getting kicked out of a rental home. He says homelessness isn’t the toughest challenge he’s faced.
“I got shot down twice and came out alive, so this is nothing compared to that,” he told KTLA, comparing his time during the war and homelessness.
The encampment has grown during the pandemic, and so have calls from advocates to find real housing for those living there. Especially after two homicides involving residents of the encampment being reported in less than six months.
Homeless veterans have been the focus of multiple federal, state and local programs over the past decade. But still, at last count there were more than 3,900 homeless veterans in Los Angeles County, according to a Homeless Services Authority count done in 2020. (This year’s count was skipped due to the pandemic.)
Rob Reynolds, a formerly homeless Iraq War veteran, lived on Veterans Row in 2018 before becoming a nonprofit outreach coordinator, advocating for veterans experiencing homelessness.
“It’s right outside the VA’s doorstep. There’s no reason they can’t just come out here and fix it,” Reynolds said of the encampment that overlooks a government-run safe camping site just behind the fence.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs opened the safe camping site for homeless veterans to shelter from COVID-19 in tents in the parking lot, with access to medical and psychiatric care, food, bathrooms and security.
It became L.A.’s first temporary tent city to be set up in four decades, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Challenges to offering shelter
A Veterans Affairs official told KTLA the facility does have the ability to shelter everyone in the encampment.
“For every one of those vets out there, we have a bed for them to move in right now,” said Matthew McGahran, the Chief of homeless programs at VA Greater L.A. “Our role is to end veterans’ homelessness, that’s our role, but we can’t force veterans off the street.”
Homeless veterans face several barriers to finding shelter, Reynolds said.
Veterans who show up at the VA facility outside admission hours won’t find immediate on-site shelter. And a main building to enroll in programs is nearly a mile away from the encampment. Those hurdles force the veterans to turn to living on the street outside, according to Reynolds.
“It’s not that easy to get someone who’s elderly, or in a wheelchair or walker, to walk about a mile,” he said, adding that he has asked the VA to provide a regular shuttle service and immediate, same-day sheltering available 24 hours a day.
McGahran acknowledged that making the process more convenient would help, and told KTLA the agency is working on some of the suggestions made.
But there are other more complex issues, Reynolds said.
“We have some of most severe cases of PTSD, severe cases of mental illness,” he said.
A large number of displaced veterans live with lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
And in 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs found that the presence of mental disorders is the strongest predictor of becoming homeless after discharge from active duty.
Violence spurs calls for action
Two recent violent incidents have intensified calls to house those living on Veterans Row.
In April, a driver allegedly intentionally hit two men, killing one, after an argument among residents in the 11600 block of San Vicente Boulevard. A few months later in September, a man who tried to intervene in another dispute at the encampment was stabbed to death by a fellow resident, L.A. County sheriff’s officials said.
After the most recent killing, L.A. City Attorney and mayoral candidate Mike Feuer called for the closure of the homeless encampment.
“It is time for there to be action, it is time for this encampment to end, for its residents to be housed, for the sidewalk to be cleared,” Feuer said at the time. “No one should live this way particularly when just on the other side of the fence there is shelter.”
L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl — who represents in the area — said her office is intensifying outreach efforts and working with other agencies to move the veterans into interim and permanent housing over the next two-to-three months.
Last Thursday, seven empty tents were being cleared after those living in them had been housed, Reynolds said.
“Almost all current residents of this encampment are already connected to a VA housing resource, including vouchers, and many are actively looking for an apartment,” Kuehl said in a statement. “But it’s clear we must accelerate the pace at which people are moved off the street. Further loss of life in this encampment is simply unacceptable.”
Reynolds said there’s an urgent need to move fast.
“I hope it goes a lot sooner because my biggest concern is who is going to die next,” Reynolds said.
Homelessness among U.S. veterans
While the number of homeless veterans in the U.S. has decreased over the past decade, it remains an ongoing issue, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
Of every 10,000 veterans in the U.S., 21 were experiencing homelessness in 2020, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated in a report to Congress. California has a much higher rate than average — and higher than any other state: 77 of every 10,000 veterans experience homelessness in the Golden State, according to the report.
California accounted for 31% of all veterans experiencing homelessness in the nation. The state also had the highest percentage of unsheltered homeless veterans.