Did the VA keep its vow to house hundreds of homeless vets in LA?


After the second killing in six months, the big brass showed up. A U.S. military veteran had been stabbed to death at a homeless camp in West LA after an argument in a tent on the sidewalk; this followed an earlier homicide at the same camp in April. In October, shortly after the stabbing, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough flew to Los Angeles. He toured the encampment, known as Veterans Row, and soon made two big promises.

First, he said, the 40 veterans living at the Veterans Row encampment — built from a few dozen tents, flags and tarps on a sidewalk beside the VA’s West Los Angeles medical campus — would be housed by November. 

Second, the VA would ensure that another 500 homeless veterans in LA County moved into housing by the end of the year.

An estimated 3,900 vets live unhoused in Los Angeles — the largest concentration in the country — and progress on ending veteran homelessness in LA, McDonough said, could hasten efforts nationwide.

“As we solve the problem there, we give momentum to our efforts across the country,” he said. 

Now VA officials say they’ve fulfilled those promises. Besides the 40 veterans from Veterans Row, they say they’d housed 537 additional veterans as of early December. But their success depends on a definition of housing that includes some temporary beds, even though the veterans in those beds are still considered homeless under the federal government’s own definition. Because of that, some critics argue that the VA is not meeting the spirit of its promises.

“The secretary's mandate has been achieved, but the word ‘housing’ has been used as a mushy term, so that they can achieve that goal without achieving what I think is the intent of what the secretary requested, which was to find homes, not just beds, for veterans,” said Dr. Joshua Bamberger, a physician who treats homeless veterans at a VA clinic in San Francisco.

There’s another loosely defined term that gets the VA to its 537 tally: “Los Angeles.” It turns out that one in five of those veterans live outside of LA County, but elsewhere within what the VA dubs the “Greater Los Angeles VA catchment area.” Spanning about 20,000 square miles, this area includes not only LA but also Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties. The latter sits about 200 miles from LA, in the Central Coast region.

McDonough declared victory on the promise to house everyone from the Veterans Row encampment near Brentwood in mid-November. And indeed, the veterans had moved off the sidewalk on November 1, when LA County officials carried out a long-planned cleanup. But were they housed?

Most, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and the VA, went either to temporary motel rooms or new tents on the VA’s West LA campus, just over the wall from where they used to stay. The VA opened a campground for unhoused veterans on the property at the beginning of the pandemic, and added a section in November for the veterans from Veterans Row.

On November 1, LA County officials removed the Veterans Row encampment from a sidewalk near Brentwood. Many veterans moved to a secured campground on the other side of the fence, on a medical campus run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Photo by Zaydee Sanchez.

Army veteran GemBob Brookhyser, 52, was one of about 20 veterans who moved from Veterans Row to a tent on VA grounds. More recently, he moved into a “tiny home,” an eight-by-eight-foot pallet shelter with air conditioning and heat. 

“I don’t consider it housing because we’re not provided with shower and bathroom facilities,” he said, meaning there’s no indoor plumbing. There are shower stalls with limited hours, and portable toilets available 24-7. 

While it’s not a permanent home, however, Brookhyser and other veterans camping on VA property receive three meals a day, access to social services, and safety from the dangers of a heavily trafficked street. Most are in some stage of securing permanent housing, and VA officials say that fulfills McDonough’s vow.

“I think the intent of the promise was to keep the veterans safe, so that they can move on to permanent housing,” said Matthew McGahran, the VA’s chief of homelessness programs in LA. The VA doesn’t consider tents, motel rooms or tiny homes to be housing either, he said, but in this case they are a positive stepping stone. 

Of the 537 additional veterans the VA says were housed between October and December, 246 are in permanent homes. The remaining 291 are in transitional housing, a category that excludes emergency shelter but includes longer-term beds such as rehab facilities. Veterans in transitional housing are still considered homeless by the federal government. About 20% of those 537 veterans came from somewhere within the VA’s “Greater LA catchment area” besides LA County.

Still, McGahran believes the VA has made good on the secretary’s goals. “I think that housing veterans is meeting the promise,” he said. “I think that keeping the veterans safe is also meeting the promise. I think that any veteran off the street and under the care and rehabilitation of the VA is keeping the promise.”

Fights over how to address street encampments and what counts as housing are playing out all over Los Angeles, which has the country’s largest unsheltered population coupled with a lack of affordable apartments. Veterans, however, have more housing resources available to them than non-veterans. Because of that LA, like other cities around the country, has made progress on veteran homelessness over the past decade.

The roughly 3,900 unhoused veterans living in LA now represent less than half the number a decade ago. Some advocates say that’s why they’re frustrated by the VA’s recent promises. They’d like to see the federal government throw its weight behind what they view as more meaningful solutions that could finally end the crisis.

“All these things to try and push aside the problem rather than solving the problem,” said Dr. Bamberger. “It’s just so frustrating because it’s right there.”

For example, rental vouchers designated for needy veterans regularly go unallocated in LA. As of this month, there are 1,323 vouchers available to veterans for units within LA City limits that have yet to be distributed, according to Heidi Marston, the head of the LA Homeless Services Authority.

Marston, who used to work for the VA in LA, says that LAHSA is working with VA officials to speed the process of getting vouchers into veterans’ hands.

Meanwhile, a longtime plan to build 1,200 subsidized apartments for homeless and needy veterans on the VA’s sprawling West LA medical campus has moved at a glacial pace. 

Robert Reynolds, an Army veteran and volunteer with the nonprofit AMVETS, was a key organizer in helping move veterans from Veterans Row onto the VA campus. He says on the whole, the veterans are better off than they were on the sidewalk. However, he adds, “When you realize that there was supposed to be housing completed in 2020, with running water and kitchens and the works, this is nothing.” 

Construction is ongoing, but five years in, only 54 units have opened. According to the original plan there were supposed to be nearly 500 by now — enough for every additional veteran the VA Secretary promised to house.