‘I’m not on the streets’: VA housing fills a need

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When Betty Love moved into Building 209 in June of this year, after more than 25 years of living on the streets, she finally felt at home. Love was one of 53 veterans to receive permanent supportive housing on land owned by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs in Westwood.

Love, 60, was a Navy communications specialist in the 1970s and 80s. However, she struggled with trauma and an abusive husband, started using drugs and became homeless.

According to Love, she was a “dope fiend, led to the streets to do things that are incomprehensible and your family turn their back on you. You lose your kids and you go deeper and deeper into the drug addiction because you don’t know how to get out. You don’t know how to ask for help.”

Several years ago, Love was arrested in Long Beach on a drug charge and spent two years in jail. This was a turning point. Following her incarceration, Love went through several drug treatment programs and found out about the vacancies at Building 209.

Building 209 houses 54 veterans who have been chronically homeless. (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)
Betty Love stands in front of her building on the VA campus. (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“I have a one bedroom apartment,” Love said. “I have a closet full of clothes. I have my own bed. I have a key I put into a door that’s mine, and more than anything, I have peace of mind. I am so grateful that I can walk here and be at peace. I’m not on the streets.”

Love was among the very first of hundreds of veterans who will eventually call the campus home. Back in 2011, a group of disabled veterans and the ACLU sued the VA. They argued that while veterans were becoming homeless, the VA was misusing the West Los Angeles campus, by doing things like renting out space to companies like Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Marriott Hotels. As part of a settlement in 2015, the VA promised to house veterans and provide services on the nearly 400 acre parcel of land.

The new permanent supportive housing complexes will be developed through the VA’s enhanced-use lease program. The VA will lease property to private developers that are partnered with homeless service agencies.

“We do have many buildings identified in our master plan to be renovated,” said Heidi Marston,Administrative Director of the Community Engagement and Reintegration Service with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. “There are a number of new buildings slated to come online as well. So for example the soccer fields here on the campus, where we’ve identified a really good place for women and children.”

According to Marston, the goal is to add 1200 units on the West L.A. campus over the next ten years.

Veteran homelessness is a perpetual problem in Los Angeles. Mayor Eric Garcetti pledged to end veteran homelessness back in 2014 and city says it’s found housing for 6,000. However, the last annual homeless count still found 5000 veterans living on the streets, a 60 percent increase over the year below.

“An increase is never anything you want to see,” said Marston,“but it does speak to the market factors- the tightening housing market, the availability of affordable housing has been a big concern. We see a lot of people falling into homelessness for the first time.”

Back in building 209, Betty Love said she’s getting treatment for her medical and mental problems, and working in the VA’s Compensated Work Therapy program.

“So many people have shown me I’m a person that deserves to have something, or be somebody,” said Love. “I truly know that I’m loved here.”