Los Angeles Daily News – Monday is a solemn reminder of the heroic contributions veterans have made to our country. Sadly, it is also a reminder of how far we have to go to keep our promises to the nation’s veterans.
More homeless veterans reside in Los Angeles than any other city in the country. Many of these veterans have multiple medical challenges and ultimately become chronically homeless. I work with veterans on a regular basis to help them get the benefits they have earned. I have seen their joy and relief when they regain the dignity that comes with finding a safe place to live and a way out of their downward spiral. And I have seen the desperation and despondency they feel when the system ignores their needs.
President Obama and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki have vowed to end veteran homelessness by 2015. Since one in 10 homeless veterans lives in Los Angeles, substantially more progress must be made here for that goal to be met. Ending veteran homelessness in Los Angeles will require a significant expansion of housing and services. Adequate funding from Congress and sustained intensive attention on progress at the West L.A. VA will be critical. Just as important, it will require a cultural shift from the way the VA is used to operating.
In past years, the VA required homeless veterans to get clean and sober before they could obtain housing. This was often an insurmountable hurdle. The VA needs to move to a “housing first” approach, which gets veterans off the streets and into a safe place to live and immediately provides comprehensive treatment and services to address their needs.
In Los Angeles, we have seen the “housing first” approach succeed. L.A. County’s joint Project 60 with the VA, which is based on the housing first approach, focused on 60 of the most vulnerable, chronically homeless veterans in Los Angeles County. Partnering with community organizations, Los Angeles County and the VA have placed veterans into safe and independent housing, given them case managers, and connected them to needed services and benefits. Since its inception, Project 60 has had a 95 percent housing retention rate and its size has doubled to serve 120 veterans. Secretary Shinseki has pledged to me and Sens. Feinstein and Boxer that he will expand Project 60 to Project 1320 by 2015, which will be a twentyfold increase in the number of veterans who will be served by the program.
Secretary Shinseki also committed to launching a new comprehensive homeless services center on the West L.A. VA campus. This center will serve as a one-stop shop for all services, including health, mental health, and substance abuse. Veterans will be able to apply for benefits and get assistance from social workers and pro bono lawyers. The center will have showers, lockers, and laundry facilities for veterans to use.
And Secretary Shinseki promised us he will take other steps to help fill the gaps for homeless veterans. A nursing home that the State of California built on the West L.A. VA campus has extra beds. The Secretary has directed the VA to work with the California Department of Veterans Affairs to allow homeless veterans to use that space until state funding becomes available for veterans who are on the waiting list for nursing home care. In September, California began opening 168 beds at this facility for permanent and emergency rescue housing for veterans.
I am pleased that Secretary Shinseki has committed to these new initiatives, and I welcome these overdue steps toward ending veterans’ homelessness in L.A. I am disappointed, however, that the VA has delayed resolution to a longstanding court dispute over land use at the West L.A. VA. Instead of squandering scarce resources appealing a court order that nullified inappropriate leases on the VA campus, the VA should be devoting its efforts to better serving homeless veterans.
I have called on the VA to meet with the various affected parties and agree to a solution that benefits the health and welfare of Los Angeles’s veterans.
On this Veterans Day, we need to pledge a sustained effort to the nation’s veterans. Our veterans kept their commitment and sacrificed much to protect us. Now we must keep our promises and provide them the housing, medical care, and other services they so urgently need.
Henry Waxman represents the 33rd district in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Source: Los Angeles Daily News op ed, November 8, 2013, by Henry Waxman