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In LA, Vets Become Homeless Faster Than The VA Can House Them


About 50,000 veterans live on America's streets. Five years ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs pledged to get them all in housing by this year. New Orleans and Houston have done it, but the largest population of homeless vets is in Los Angeles. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on how LA is tackling the problem.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: There's a joke about the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. It takes 405 hours to get anywhere. But that's not why Iraq vet Jim Zenner hated it.

JIM ZENNER: I don't know if you've been on the 405, but it kind of looks like Route Tampa kind of. Route Tampa's a major rout that runs through Iraq, and it's a place where you've got to watch over over watches, over hangs. I mean, you've got to be on alert 'cause that's - I mean, there's a lot of attacks and ambushes and IEDs on Route Tampa. So - and so there's a lot of, like, triggers.

LAWRENCE: Zenner moved to LA when he got back from Iraq in 2008, and those kind of triggers put him on edge. He was already struggling with anger and depression. At home with his wife and kids, he'd yell so loud the neighbors would call the cops.

ZENNER: And I think it was the fourth time, the police brought DCFS with them, and they basically told me that if one of us don't leave the house, then they're going to take our kids. So I packed my stuff, slept in the car that night and then got a hotel room, took my oldest son, and we stayed there for four days.

LAWRENCE: After that, he had nowhere to go. He and his wife were both students. Zenner was doing a Masters in social work. They were living off loans and GI Bill money - not enough to pay two rents in Los Angeles. He went to the VA for help, but none of their shelters at that time would take in a father and son. Zenner lucked out. A place run by Volunteers of America did him a favor and bent their rules to house him. He stayed seven months. Then they asked him a favor.

ZENNER: So I did some volunteer work for them, and in early 2010, they offered me a position to take an empty building and turn it into a readjustment facility for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that were where we're currently talking right now.

LAWRENCE: Zenner runs the Hollywood Veterans Center, an old hotel now turned into a barrack-style halfway house for about 40 vets from recent wars. Anytime of day, you'll find a couple of guys in the gym set up in a covered alley beside the building. It's got free weights and a heavy bag for boxing like every little base in Iraq and Afghanistan had. There's a TV lounge and a group therapy room too. Though, the guys say they get most of their talk therapy just hanging around with other vets from the same war.

Treatment can be arranged to fit around school or work. Zenner says the center is set up to be flexible, to bend rules like they did for him. It's part of a slow change in philosophy about homelessness. Vince Kane is special assistant to the VA secretary.

VINCE KANE: In the past, both inside and outside of VA, we were focused on models that were more about managing homelessness than about ending homelessness.

LAWRENCE: Kane says even at the VA, the goal of ending homelessness in 2015 seemed aspirational five years ago when it was set. Since then, the VA has taken on new, more effective policies like housing vets first and then getting them drug or alcohol counseling. Those, along with a 300 percent jump in funding - up to $1.5 billion last year - has made the goal seem doable. Vince Kane says homelessness among vets is down 33 percent nationally.

KANE: We've been able to house more homeless veterans in the last five years than at any point in our history. And the homeless programs have been in existence for 30-plus years.

LAWRENCE: New Orleans was first to declare functional zero at the start of the year. They've offered housing to all chronically homeless veterans, and they can house any new vet in 30 days. Houston hit functional zero in June, but LA is way behind. Vince Kane was sent from headquarters to clean up the Los Angeles VA, which was embroiled in a lawsuit about misuse of resources. To be fair, LA's problem is bigger.

KANE: They've all done great work, but no one has done as much as Los Angeles does in total volume.

LAWRENCE: Greg Spiegel advises the mayor of Los Angeles on homelessness. He says for example, while New Orleans housed 227 vets last year to reach zero, Los Angeles housed about that many last month and the month before that. But Spiegel says as fast as they can house them, about seven more veterans become homeless every day in Los Angeles.

GREG SPIEGEL: That inflow of veterans becoming homeless is so big, it essentially neutralized the incredible progress we made housing them. That had never been done before and is more than anywhere else in the country.

LAWRENCE: LA needs to house 3,000 more by the end of the year to reach zero, but no one expects it to happen on schedule. The city has a severe housing shortage, a problem for housing vets across the country. And while setting a deadline has helped galvanize national support for homeless veterans, there's a risk. Steve Peck directs the nonprofit U.S. Vets.

STEVE PECK: My fear is that someone will claim victory at the end of this year, and funding will start going away.

LAWRENCE: He's already seeing it. For example, when Houston announced it reached functional zero, Peck was just about to start fundraising for a homeless veterans event there.

PECK: And it was only weeks after that that we began making calls to our community partners to help us. We get donations from all over. And one of them actually said well, wait a minute, I thought we ended this.

LAWRENCE: Peck's worried that impression will become an excuse for Washington to back off after the deadline this year regardless of how many vets are still living on the street. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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