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Cures For L.A.'s 8,000 Homeless Veterans

Aaron Schrank |
December 16, 2011 | 12:15 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

David Cota’s military career took him to some harrowing places.

As a Navy builder, he was dispatched to the Ground Zero rubble and post-Katrina New Orleans. One of his deployments was to an Iraq combat zone, where many of his friends lost their lives.

When he returned home, he was wracked with survivor’s guilt, unable to trudge on as if the things he’d experienced hadn’t happened. For a year and a half, he was homeless—living on the side of the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, surviving day-to-day and mourning his lost friends the only way he knew how.

“Every day you live your life for four, five, six, years—you’re being told to be here at this time, be here in this uniform, think on your feet, this is your job, this is what you’re going to do,” Cota said. “Then you get out, and you don’t know what to do. There’s no safety net. Your whole world is swept out from underneath you.”

While veterans’ advocates say it should be an oxymoron, ‘homeless veteran’ is a label that describes more than 8,000 people living in the greater L.A. area. Armed Services veterans account for 18 percent of the city’s homeless population, and the drawback of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan is expected to worsen the problem.

It wasn’t until an old friend found Cota--roughed him up a bit, bought him a drink and recommended he seek help—that he got off the streets. He started taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and enrolled in college under the GI bill.

Since then, Cota has paid the bills as a freelance photographer and volunteers much of his time to The Vet Hunters Project—a San Gabriel Valley-based organization dedicated to helping the thousands of men and women who, like him, have gone from the battlefield to the streets of Los Angeles.


The Department of Veterans Affairs has made reducing homelessness a priority, announcing a bold campaign to end veteran homelessness by 2015. In Los Angeles, a 23 percent increase in veteran homelessness since the start of the campaign and a lawsuit over land use at the VA’s West Los Angeles campus has caused many community-based organizations to question the earnestness and feasibility of the VA’s campaign.

“It was cute in the beginning,” said The Vet Hunters Project founder Joe Leal. “Why don’t we just say 2015? I’m going to tell you right now—it’s not going to happen. Imagine working at the VA and they tell you that you’ve got to end homelessness by 2015, but they’re going to cut half of your budget.”

Most community-based veterans’ organizations depend on the VA for funding. Apolonio Munoz, outreach coordinator for the National Veterans Foundation, says he hasn’t seen increased funding for homeless initiatives from the campaign.

“They say it’s going good, but I don’t see much of a difference,” Munoz said. “We should have new facilities open, or in production. There should be money readily available, but it’s not working that way.”

Stephen Peck, who once worked at the VA and is now president and CEO of non-profit veterans service provider U.S. Vets, says the VA’s 2015 announcement was about gaining attention, not promising results.

“I think that (VA) Secretary (Eric) Shinseki put that marker out there—2015—to get people’s attention—which it has done,” Peck said. “Whether it’s possible or not, I don’t know, and that’s not really the point. You end veteran homelessness in 2015 and the next day, there’s going to be another homeless veteran. I think the idea is to increase our capacity to handle veterans who become homeless.”

While the VA’s role remains to be seen, it’s clear that in a resource-scarce city with the dubious distinction of ‘homeless capital of the world,’ services providers must come up with creative solutions to a complicated problem.


Cota’s route to homelessness—PTSD—is not an uncommon one. While estimates vary as to PTSD rates among returning veterans, between 15 and 20 percent seek PTSD treatment through the VA.

Cota had a job when he first came home. He was the leading salesman at a Guitar Center before he quit and resigned himself to the streets, but, for many, unemployment begins the downward spiral. The unemployment rate among veterans is 12 percent nationally, compared to 9 percent among the general population. Others suffer from physical disability or traumatic brain injury resulting from combat, and even more deal with substance abuse issues.

Ryan Simmons returned from a three-year deployment to Iraq, where he’d served as an infantryman with the National Guard, in 2008. He lived in a room for rent for three months, but quickly turned to an old addiction: crystal methamphetamine.

He’s been homeless and in and out of treatment programs ever since. He took the bus from his current treatment center, The Salvation Army Bell Shelter, to browse the services available at a Stand Down event—sort of a one-stop shop for homeless veterans’ services—in Pomona.

“Everything was going good at first, but due to the fact that I lost someone close to me over there, I kept dwelling on it, and I chose to go back to something that was familiar to me prior to my service,” Simmons said. “I fell back into that cycle. I knew it wasn’t good, but it offered quicker results than medication.”

While Steve Keesal was never homeless, he did spend considerable time in long-term rehabilitation for alcohol abuse after returning from Iraq, where he served in the Army as an Airborne Ranger. In the RAND Corporation lobby, after a forum on veterans’ issues, Keesal said the biggest issue he and other returning veterans face is a lack of vitality.

“Even if you did a relatively mundane job in the military, it’s the most vital you ever felt,” Keesal said. “When people transition into a life that is less vital and, at the same time, have trouble finding good employment or the light at the end of the tunnel, this can be absolutely devastating.”

Llewellyn Wright has been homeless for his entire adult life since leaving the military in 1987. He says his crack addiction is what has kept him on the streets for all of these years.

“I was just too stuck in my neighborhood on drugs to seek any sort of help,” Wright said, clutching a slightly used pair of Nikes he’d just been given at the Pomona Stand Down. “A lot of us vets are having mental health issues, and instead of seeking treatment, we self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to cope with what’s going on around us.”

As each of these issues puts veterans at greater risk of becoming homeless, tackling veteran homelessness means not just getting veterans off the streets, but also ramping up preventative care within the veterans’ services community. But for the 8,000 veterans in L.A. who’ve already hit rock bottom, the lack of available housing in the city is a serious barrier to reintegration. 


A coalition of homeless veterans, led by the ACLU of Southern California, filed a lawsuit against the VA in June, alleging that VA policies and a lack of permanent supportive housing prevent many of L.A.’s homeless vets from receiving much-needed care. One of the claims focuses on the use of land at the 387-acre West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus, which decades ago included a permanent home and services for thousands of disabled veterans.

Today, many of the more than 100 buildings on the West L.A. VA grounds are vacant or underused. Large portions of the land have been leased for commercial purposes, including an Enterprise Rent-a-Car agency, a hotel laundry facility, a UCLA baseball field and a charter bus company. The ACLU contends that this land can and should be used to house L.A.’s burgeoning homeless veteran population, some of whom sleep right outside the campus gates.

The Department of Justice has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. ACLU attorney David Sapp, who is working on the VA case, says the DOJ’s legal arguments are wildly out of sync with what the VA has said publically about its commitment to homeless veterans.

“They’ve argued that the government has neither the duty nor the legal authority to provide housing to these veterans,” Sapp said. “If you juxtapose that to what the VA and President Obama are saying, these lawyers in court are essentially saying that the president is a liar. They argue that the VA not only has no authority to do so, but—even if it did—certainly has no duty. It can’t be forced to do it, notwithstanding the very public statements that it will.”

A court ruling on the motion to dismiss is pending, and Sapp is confident that the case will move forward.

The ACLU suit elicits a range of responses from those who work with homeless veterans, most of whom think increasing on-site housing is a workable solution.  U.S. Vets’ Stephen Peck disagrees.

“If you talk with people who adhere to the original deed, they say this is deeded as a home to all soldiers, and they believe the [West LA] VA should be providing housing end-to-end for veterans that are indigent,” Peck said. “Well, one, there’s not the money to do that. And, two, you don’t want to create a veterans’ ghetto for poor veterans.”


The VA has increased its focus on homelessness since its campaign began, in some respects. It has worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to increase the number of VASH vouchers (Section 8 rental assistance vouchers) for homeless veterans.

If the VA released every voucher billed for next year in the Los Angeles area, it’d be around 1,000—taking almost one-eighth of the homeless veteran population off the streets. The Post-9/11 GI Bill provides tuition benefits and living stipends to returning veterans who enroll in college—likely keeping many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan afloat.

Stephen Peck says the VA’s most successful effort in this area began in the 1990s, when the VA decided it wasn’t the one to solve the homelessness problem and, through the Grant and Per Diem Program, contracted with community agencies like his to provide transitional housing to homeless veterans.

While the VA once served as a place veterans could come to with a problem and stay for months, It has shifted its focus in recent decades to medical and psychiatric care, and its number of inpatients has shrunk considerably. This puts the duty of providing further care, including housing, on communities—which Peck insists is a positive thing.

“The VA in an unwieldy bureaucracy,” Peck said. “We’re always skeptical when the VA says, ‘We’re going to solve this problem,’ because we know that whatever money is thrown at the VA, a lot of it is going to be absorbed into the bureaucracy and its not going to go down to helping veterans on the street where it should.”


Army Reservist Joe Leal founded The Vet Hunters Project to reach the homeless veterans that more traditional organizations like the VA can’t—those who are unable or willing to seek the assistance they need or even unaware that assistance exists. Leal and his team find these men and women under bridges, in canyons, on the sides of roads—and provide everything from basic needs like food and water to transportation assistance or information about shelters or rehabilitation programs in the area.

“I like to say Vet Hunters is like the eHarmony of homeless vets,” Leal said. They don’t have computers; they’re disconnected from resources. Our job is simple, we bring the resources to where the homeless vets live.”

Leal, David Cota and the rest of the Vet Hunters pride themselves on cutting through the red tape that prevents other organizations from assisting the homeless. When Leal got a call about a homeless veteran living in a car behind a gas station, Leal went to investigate.

He found an Air Force veteran who told him that he had a severe hernia, but hadn’t been to the VA in 30 years, in part because expired tags and unpaid parking tickets prevented him making the trip. Leal took the man to the DMV and paid for his tags, went to the courthouse and lobbied the judge to forgive his tickets, and escorted him to the VA, where he’s now recovering from surgery.

“You’ve got to get out of your desk. You’ve got to go to the field,” Leal said. “You’ve got to understand their mentality—what they think their roadblocks are. Don’t expect them to walk into your door, because that’s not how it’s going to work.”

After powerful winds tore through much of Southern California last month, the Vet Hunters delivered supplies—jackets, food and medicine—to a remote homeless encampment under Interstate 10 in El Monte. They’d visited many times before and had even helped move some veterans from the ‘village’ out and into transitional housing. Leal shared a meal with the 12 or so residents of the encampment and invited them to an event for homeless veterans the following week.

Cota spent much of his time at the encampment speaking with a 20-year-old woman about joining a Job Corps program and getting back on her feet. He says his experience with homelessness motivates him to help others and allows him to do so more effectively than most.

“I know what it feels like to be cold,” Cota said. “People say, ‘I can understand how bad you feel,’ but they don’t. You don’t quite get it unless you’ve been there. Knowing what helped me get out, it gives us an advantage over a lot of other organizations because we care, we’ve been there, and we know what it’s like.”

When Leal isn’t leading outdoor ‘vet hunting’ expeditions, he’s aggressively networking with service providers and city officials in his area. He regularly attends city council meetings to share the stories of homeless veterans and encourage action. He’s currently working with the city of El Monte to build the first homeless shelter for veterans in the San Gabriel Valley.


Each organization has a slightly different approach to dealing with veteran homelessness. Some, like The United Way’s Home For Good L.A. initiative, opt for a ‘housing first’ model, where veterans are given a place to stay before mental health and substance abuse issues are addressed. The approach is backed by studies that suggests it is 40 percent less expensive to place someone in permanent supportive housing than to leave them on the streets.

Other organizations, like Stephen Peck’s U.S. Vets, employ what he calls a ‘quality of life’ philosophy, where veterans address mental health and substance abuse issues before moving in to a home. He shared a story about a pair of veterans who had been homeless for more than 20 years, received VASH vouchers and were placed in an apartment.

“They were sleeping on the floor,” Peck said. “They were cooking their meals over a Sterno can sitting on the floor because they hadn’t had a home in 20 years—they didn’t know how to do that. Is that a good quality of life?”

Community-based organizations agree that more coordination is necessary moving forward.

“We’re trying to get everyone together on the same page,” said Apolonio Munoz, of the National Veterans Foundation. “Everybody wants to do things their way. They say, ‘I’ve got the perfect cure for homelessness,’ but it only works for a certain subset. If we all work to get on the same page, we can get a lot more done.”


The last remaining U.S. troops in Iraq are due home by the end of 2011, and veterans’ advocates are worried a large number could end up homeless. A study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that veterans of these recent conflicts are ending up on the street faster than those who fought in previous wars, including Vietnam.

And a joint study between HUD and the VA found that while this new era of post-9/11 veterans makes up only 5 percent of the overall veteran population, they account for 9 percent of those that are homeless, a disturbing fact the VA attributes to a struggling economy and a pattern of multiple deployments.

Public sentiment toward the new era of veterans is markedly more positive than it was for those returning from Vietnam, and Vet Hunter Joe Leal says this support needs to be reflected in the availability of help for those who are most vulnerable.
“You ever see those commercials where the soldiers are walking through the airport and everybody’s clapping to welcome them home?” Leal asked, “Well what happens next? How can you tell a veteran welcome home if they have no place to go?”

Reach reporter Aaron Schrank here.

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