This article in the NY Times of April 4, 2007, is a reminder that permanent, supportive housing is needed for veterans instead of transitional housing.
Old Buildings Getting a Face-Lift for Homeless Veterans
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
LOS ANGELES, April 3 â€” Right now, they hardly seem the makings of living space, the abandoned halls and vacant rooms of Buildings 4 and 5 on the Veterans Affairs campus in the San Fernando Valley.
Electrical cables snaking here and there, patches of what appears to be fake blood on the floor, a kaleidoscope of pink, violet, green and gray walls â€” all left over from sets for movies and television programs, including â€œAcceptedâ€ last summer.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has not used the buildings for health care since they were damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and two nonprofit groups here hope the filming era is over. They have plans to sign a long-term lease this month that will allow the buildings to be transformed into permanent housing with social services and counseling for disabled homeless veterans.
It would be the first such facility in Los Angeles and one of the few in the nation, department officials said.
Los Angeles has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the nation, some 20,000, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. Nationwide, there is a need for 27,000 units of permanent housing with support services for homeless veterans, federal officials say, but fewer than 1,000 are available.
â€œTo have 20,000 homeless vets and have these buildings used for movie shoots, we need to reprioritize about what we are doing in this country,â€ said Toni Reinis, executive director of New Directions, the nonprofit group that would run the facility.
Still, the proposed $40 million makeover faces some uncertainty. New Directions must raise the money for it, though Ms. Reinis said it was already lining up potential sources, and it faces objections from the congressman who represents the area, Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat, as well as some people living nearby.
Mr. Sherman, while saying he recognized the need for such a project, suggested that the veterans department should have put the project up for competitive bidding, and he balked at New Directionsâ€™ refusal to guarantee that the facility would be for veterans only and free of alcohol.
Mr. Sherman, a former tax lawyer who said he was guided in part by his legal training, has pushed to have many of the promises New Directions has made about the project written into its lease. He introduced a bill in March requiring that the buildings â€œto the extent possibleâ€ be designated for use by veterans only.
The area around the campus is primarily residential, and some who live there are wary of the proposal.
â€œAre the vets going to be required to be sober?â€ asked Lewis Brown, the president of the local neighborhood council, ticking off a list of concerns while maintaining that he had not decided whether to support or oppose it. â€œWhatâ€™s the security arrangement? If somebody goes crazy and goes off campus, heâ€™s right in the middle of houses. There is no skid row to go to.â€
Ms. Reinis said the facility would have security guards and, while not using random drug testing, would declare itself â€œclean and soberâ€ and quickly refer tenants showing signs of drug or alcohol abuse to appropriate counseling, possibly at other facilities.
She said Mr. Shermanâ€™s bill appeared to overlook the fact that some federal and state programs that could help finance the project prohibit a veterans-only stipulation. Instead, on paper, veterans would be given preference, and in practice, given the need and interest, Ms. Reinis and veterans department officials said they expected veterans to fill all the openings.
â€œWe have always found they run a good program, marketed appropriately to the intended population and filled with the intended population,â€ said Peter Dougherty, the director of homeless services for the department in Washington.
The department said it did not need to seek competitive bids because its regulations did not require them and because of its past close work with New Directions, which specializes in drug and mental health counseling services for veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson recently signed off on the project, after several years of negotiation, and officials plan to sign the lease later this month.
The plan for the new housing, developed largely by New Directions, would seek to take the care beyond the customary short-term treatment. The other nonprofit group involved in the project is A Community of Friends, which has developed two dozen subsidized housing buildings for low-income, disabled and homeless people across Los Angeles.
The two groups plan to convert the buildings, built in the 1950s and used until the 1994 earthquake for mental health treatment, into 147 subsidized apartments. Residents would pay rent on a sliding scale and receive mental and substance abuse counseling and other help there.
The residents could also quickly get to department-run clinics and other programs on the campus, known as the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, in the North Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, a marriage of services unlike any other on a veterans affairs campus, department officials said.
It would be similar to so-called â€œtransitional housingâ€ New Directions operates at another veterans complex in West Los Angeles, though that one typically serves people only for a year or two.
Walking the grounds, officials from the two groups pointed to walls, windows and ceilings that would be demolished or reconfigured into studio apartments of some 400 square feet each, with kitchenettes and shared lounges.
â€œWe are going to deinstitutionalize it,â€ said Gigi Szabo, the senior project manager with A Community of Friends. â€œRight now, it feels like a hospital, but it wonâ€™t.â€
Mr. Dougherty, the veterans affairs official, said the project, if successful, could point the way to more such collaborations for long-term housing, something the department has traditionally left to other agencies to provide. He said the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, provides vouchers to veterans for low-cost housing, but that department does not provide medical and social services like the Sepulveda project intends to do.
Homeless veterans here said they found the search for housing and services tough.
â€œA lot of times you try to get your life back on track and then if you do that, you wonder where are you going to live?â€ said Richard Moten, 50, an Army veteran undergoing drug and mental health treatment who could benefit from the new housing.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company