How Government Created, Instead of Prevented, an All-Veterans Homeless Encampment

Veterans Row Encampment

Veteran homelessness is a well-known problem in the U.S. Between physical disabilities, mental health conditions, inability to work, and general lack of resources, veterans are one of the most downtrodden populations in the U.S. This translates to high numbers of veterans who become homeless. It’s a heartbreaking and sickening reality that hasn’t failed to generate outpourings of sympathy from the public.

However, sympathy doesn’t always translate into action.

We Americans love to place military service on a pedestal. We toss around the empty gesture of “thank you for your service” and accuse others of not being grateful for veterans’ sacrifices. Yet when it comes to rectifying or even paying attention to the troubles that real veterans face after leaving the service, the emptiness becomes obvious.

It’s not impossible to understand why: there should be agencies responsible for taking care of veterans, right? The government spends so much money on the military, including taxpayer money, that surely we must also be helping veterans just by participating in society.

Except it isn’t that simple. The VA, or Veterans Administration, doesn’t have the cleanest track record of using funds responsibly or ethically.

How the West Los Angeles VA Has Failed Veterans

Veterans Row was a homeless encampment just outside the West LA VA. Its location was a form of protest. The VA is the federal agency responsible for health care and other services for veterans. Ironically, it hasn’t always done its part in addressing the pervasive threat to veterans’ health that is homelessness.

A look inside Veterans Row showed some unique qualities. Residents kept a rotating list of jobs, such as keeping watch and sweeping. They also had a chain of command, making its operation similar to a patrol base.

In addition to a protest, the location was meant to act as a funnel—getting veterans as close as possible to services in order to minimize barriers. They looked out for each other until they couldn’t anymore. Two homicides forced the VA to finally take action.

The site relocated—forcibly—onto the VA property in November 2021. It’s now within the fence instead of just outside it. It’s a show of accountability by the VA. However, it remains to be seen what the long-term outcome will be for residents of Veterans Row.

There’s also the ominous question of why it took two homicides and a pandemic to force the VA into this action.

The VA’s Role in Veteran Homelessness

One would expect the primary agency responsible for the care of veterans, the VA, to be a persistent force for change. However, their plans and ambitions frequently fall short, as in the case of the 2016 West LA Master Plan.

They still plan to build 1,200 housing units on VA grounds. However, due to costly and time-consuming development tasks, it may not be finished until 2031. Until then, there are 54 supportive housing units, and another 200 planned for this year. That’s not a lot of progress in the six years it’s been since the plan’s inception.

In addition to failed plans, the VA has a history of profiting off resources that could and should have been set aside for veterans. Since the 70s, the West LA VA has been in trouble for giving its land to private companies. They’ve received some consequences and bad press but don’t seem to have fully learned their lesson.

They’re still doing things like sanctioning tent cities to provide the most basic human needs like food, water, and sanitation. The tent city program, currently on the lawn of West LA VA, is called the Care, Treatment and Rehabilitative Services Initiative (CTRS). It was created in order to allow homeless people to shelter in place during the pandemic and to serve as a first step toward exiting homelessness. It’s referred to as a point-of-entry into VA housing services.

A spokesperson for LA mayor Eric Garcetti said sanctioned encampments are “not the solution to homelessness, and they are far from ideal,” but that it’s “better than leaving them out on our sidewalks.”

This was the first government-sanctioned tent city in four decades within LA. It could easily be seen as the bare minimum the VA could have done.

To be fair, the VA has done a lot of good for veterans. Major programs launched through the VA have provided effective rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing services for tens of thousands. HUD-VASH housing vouchers have allowed more than 80,000 formerly homeless veterans to gain permanent housing. These programs are available in West LA, too, and they work.

But these national programs and impressive numbers paint an incomplete picture. Corruption, greed, and inaction have plagued the VA, and this West Los Angeles branch in particular, just as they’ve plagued government entities throughout time.

Our Empathy and Knowledge Matters

There are a few ways we could react to the story of Veterans Row. We could be impressed by the solidarity of veterans coming together to look out for each other while making a statement. We could be outraged there are still homeless vets. These responses are fair but shallow unless we grasp the larger picture of what it means to be a homeless veteran.

Military service is transformative. Veterans cannot be treated in the same way the general population is. The VA is absolutely essential. And when it does its job well, it’s a powerful force. Just look at the tremendous amount of change it accomplished for homeless veterans in ten years.

But the price is suffering when it doesn’t keep up due to corruption, lack of understanding, or any other issue.

We, as voters, have some control over whether or not the VA does its job. We need to pressure legislators to make the VA accountable for its actions. It should have adequate oversight, and it should respond well to its members’ unique and changing needs. Bare minimum actions are not acceptable when lives are at stake.


Victoria VanTol

Victoria VanTol

  

Victoria VanTol holds a master's degree in social work. She is a therapist and freelance writer specializing in topics related to social justice and mental health.

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