When a team from Volunteers of America found Melissa Degnan living on the streets of Orange County in February 2016, she was cleaning the bathroom at an RV storage yard in exchange for a place to sleep. She’d had a close call with a roving band of teens who were beating up homeless people.
“Things were getting pretty hairy at the place I was hiding out,” Degnan says. “They had their sights on me.”
Outreach volunteers persuaded Degnan to get into their car by offering her a burrito – “it was my first hot food in years,” she says – and took her to a former Navy housing complex in Long Beach called the Villages at Cabrillo. Here the Army veteran receives medical and mental health care and stays in a studio apartment with donated furniture, including a side table where she keeps the picture of her late parents she managed to hang onto while living on the streets.
Homeless advocates hope the same partners that run the Villages can transform neglected buildings and overgrown grounds at the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center campus into a therapeutic community with permanent supportive housing for approximately 1,200 veterans. There’s a lot riding on U.S.VETS, Century Housing and Thomas Safran & Associates, who formed the West Los Angeles Veterans Collective and were selected to oversee redevelopment of the VA campus.
Los Angeles has the highest concentration of homeless veterans in the United States. They are competing for shelter with scores of other homeless people in one of the most expensive real-estate markets in the country. Since 2012, rents have risen twice as fast as the maximum subsidy provided to veterans through the federal HUD-VASH (VA Supportive Housing) voucher program, says UCLA law professor emeritus and homeless expert Gary Blasi.
VA, meanwhile, lost more than two years trying to launch the project before bringing in the collective to take over as principal developer. As a result, 490 units of new housing won’t be ready in 2020, as promised in a legal settlement regarding mismanagement of the campus. There
are also questions about infrastructure funding, and the prospect of a legal challenge from the upscale neighborhoods that border the VA property.
The collective is confident it can clear those hurdles, based on their success with the Villages and other projects. “We are committed, and the experience we have shows we can do it,” says Andrew Gross of Thomas Safran & Associates, which specializes in developing, financing and managing low-income housing communities.
It’s crucial that the West Los Angeles project succeed, says Chanin Nuntavong, director of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, who visited the VA campus in February. “Our goal is to help get the number of homeless veterans to functional zero as quickly as possible. That means making housing available to all of the homeless veterans who want it.”
NAVAL HISTORY With financial support from Century Housing, U.S.VETS opened its first housing project in Inglewood, Calif., in the early 1990s at the urging of the late 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Harry Pregerson, a tireless homeless advocate and World War II Marine Corps veteran who was wounded at Okinawa. A few years later, the city of Long Beach asked the partnership to take over the shuttered Navy housing that became the Villages.
“Our idea was to put all of the pieces together for veterans to be housed, rehabilitated and reintegrated into the community,” says U.S.VETS CEO Steve Peck, a Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran.
The naval housing complex has been renovated and expanded by Century Housing with the help of more than $100 million in state and federal tax credits and about $34 million in support from the city of Long Beach, Los Angeles County, the state, private investors and donors. It cost about $22 million in 2017 to operate the Villages and provide services to the individuals, families and children who live there. Roughly $1.2 million of that was covered by HUD-VASH rent subsidies.
By all accounts, the Villages has been a huge success. It scores high marks from homeless advocates, social service agencies and former U.S. servicemembers. Approximately half the 1,500 people living there are veterans. This includes 150 former servicemembers who are in transitional housing. Another 550 are permanent residents.
The Villages has in-patient drug and alcohol treatment, a VA medical clinic, job counseling and a range of other services provided by approximately 30 nonprofits and government agencies ranging from Catholic Charities to VA. There are also classes, from cooking and nutrition to yoga and meditation. “If you are homeless, everything is short-term,” Peck says. “Here we want to break that cycle and get them thinking long-term.”
Veterans make this transition in a peaceful, tree-lined neighborhood with a volleyball sandlot and outdoor basketball court. A courtyard near the U.S.VETS office hosts a farmers market and special events. There’s a clocktower named for Pregerson and a mural that includes Sam Davis, one of the first veterans to move to the Villages. He stayed until his death in 2017. There’s also a dining hall that provides three meals a day, though permanent residents also have access to their own kitchens.
Approximately 97 percent of its residents are still permanently housed a year after they arrive. The number of women seeking substance-abuse treatment has increased fivefold since the Villages started providing women’s-only housing. Women from across the country also come here for the military sexual trauma treatment program.
“Some experienced military sexual trauma 30 years ago and never dealt with it,” Peck says. “We have everyone from a 25-year-old to a 60-year-old.”
Degnan doesn’t say much about the military sexual trauma she experienced during her 16-year Army career. She became a nurse after leaving the service, working for the Vet Center in Truth or Consequences, N.M., and later joining a Johns Hopkins vaccine research team on the Navajo Nation. “I was doing OK,” Degnan says of her post-Army life. “Then about 2009 or ’10 somebody grabbed me again. I ended up on the street.”
Moving to the Villages was difficult. “I ran away the first day,” she says. “I tried a regular shelter in Orange County. The first night a guy tried to crawl into bed with me.”
U.S.VETS connected her with intensive group therapy at the Long Beach VA, which has also been integral to her recovery. She still struggles with health issues, but says the medical care she receives at the Villages helps makes them manageable.
“I consider myself to be a success story,” Degnan says. “I consider my life to have been saved by Volunteers of America, U.S.VETS and the Villages of Cabrillo.” Building a similar veterans housing program at the West Los Angeles VA is vital, she says. “I know how many people need it.”
Veterans John Sanchez and Pat Johnson, more recent arrivals at the Villages, echo her support for building a bigger, better version of the Villages at the West Los Angeles VA.
“Everything is so expensive here,” Sanchez, a Navy corpsman and Vietnam combat veteran, says of the Los Angeles area housing market. “There’s just a lot of us who are S.O.L.”
HISTORIC MISSION The West Los Angeles VA was built on 387 acres given to the U.S. government in 1888 for the express purpose of housing former servicemembers. At its peak, the campus was home to 4,000 veterans, a post office, churches, theaters and a 10,000-volume library. VA quietly ended that service during the Vietnam War, effectively pushing mentally disabled veterans to the streets. The buildings that housed them were largely abandoned. In the ensuing decades, VA leased more than 100 acres of the campus for everything from a private school’s athletic center to a hotel chain’s laundry facility. Much of that ended after a coalition sued VA on behalf of severely mentally disabled homeless veterans. The 2015 settlement included VA’s pledge to build permanent supportive housing for at least 1,200 veterans.
After struggling to get the new housing project underway, VA brought in a senior executive, Meghan Flanz, to oversee the effort in 2018. The agency then hired the West Los Angeles Veterans Collective as the principal developer. Homeless veteran advocates say those decisions have gotten the development back on track.
There are still significant hurdles. There’s no funding for the streets, sidewalk sewers, waterlines and other infrastructure needed to accommodate the permanent supportive housing and other amenities that will transform this neglected part of the campus into a nurturing neighborhood. Some worry the nearby Brentwood or Westwood neighborhoods will sue over the environmental impact statement, an echo of a lawsuit aimed at blocking construction of a new VA hospital near Louisville.
The collective is optimistic. “There’s so much political will to get it done,” Peck says. “I don’t believe anyone can stop it.”
Blasi is more cautious. “Political capital comes and goes,” he says. Veterans advocates will have to stay on top of the West Los Angeles project and in touch with their elected officials for the new housing to come to fruition.
“There have been real champions of veterans on both sides of the aisle over the past few years and still are,” Blasi says. “But there seems to be little appetite in the current administration for doing more to help with the basic needs of people, even those people who put their lives on the line for the rest of us.”
NEW BEGINNINGS Howard Payne is an example of what the West Los Angeles VA project could mean for veterans sleeping on Skid Row, under highway bridges or around the perimeter of the VA campus. He’s one of about 50 former servicemembers living in the only permanent supportive housing on the West Los Angeles VA campus.
Payne joined the Army to escape his abusive father. He served in Vietnam and Korea and has been homeless periodically since leaving the military in 1986. The most recent episode was in 2015, after downsizing cost him his job as a machine operator at a newspaper in Texas. It nearly cost him his life. Camped on a friend’s couch in Abilene with a shotgun near at hand, he drank a 12-pack of beer, a bottle of bourbon and other liquor before calling the veterans suicide prevention hotline. Payne doesn’t remember making that call. He does recall a woman and six police officers showing up, relieving him of his shotgun and persuading him to go to a treatment facility. “I told the woman, ‘Thank goodness I was so messed up I couldn’t find the shotgun shells,’” Payne says.
Two weeks later, he was offered the opportunity to come to the domiciliary at the West Los Angeles VA campus. After Payne sobered up, he moved into Building 209, a 1940s-era structure that had just been renovated thanks to $20 million in funding from Congress. He pays his rent with the help of a HUD-VASH voucher.
Building 209 is run by a nonprofit called Step Up, whose staff members help veterans living there navigate the VA system and obtain other support services they need, says CEO Tod Lipka. “Housing is a means to an end, a sense of belonging, a sense of community.”
Payne has a spacious one-bedroom apartment, does property management work for Step Up, and makes plans to visit his children and grandchildren – including his oldest daughter, who is scheduled to have surgery for a brain tumor. He’s incredibly grateful to have this place to live.
“I’ve got everything I need, thanks to the housing here,” he says. “The best thing is the serenity.”
To the people pushing VA to deliver on its promise to create a home for 1,200 more Howard Paynes and Melissa Degnans, it’s part of society’s debt. “We’re committed to seeing this happen,” Nuntavong says. “These veterans have served their country. It’s our duty to take care of them, rehabilitate them and get them back into society as contributing members.”
Ken Olsen is a frequent contributor to The American Legion Magazine.