As someone who has spent 44 years on the streets of Los Angeles working to help homeless veterans, I hear a lot of talk and see a lot of reports on homelessness. But the scene we see on the ground has not changed much from when I started working with homeless vets in the 1970s. If anything, it is worse than it's ever been.
The California drought and the expected El Niño have been in the national news off and on for months. Things are parched here. But lots of rain, though welcome, will bring its own set of problems for a city with the largest homeless population in the country, a very wet winter for people sleeping on the streets.
The homelessness issue stays in the press in all media. The images are compelling... but they result in more dialogue, not action. Even facing an El Niño year isn't enough to jolt us into action. What's the matter with us? What's it going to take?
Let's pose a larger question: What keeps us from acting?
Is the problem that we don't know what the solutions are for homelessness? No, we know what they are and we know they work. One of most important answers is permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people with special needs, including people with disabilities, mental illness, and addiction problems. It has been proven all over the country to get homeless people off the streets for good. "For veterans and single individuals who have experienced chronic homelessness, either on the streets or in a shelter system for a long time, permanent supportive housing works best," said Jerry Jones, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
The two other big solutions are more transitional housing and more affordable housing. Affordable housing is a huge scarcity in Los Angeles and other cities where the cost of living is relatively high. The VA, for example, has a program called HUD-VASH that provides housing vouchers for homeless veterans. We at the NVF have worked with a number of vets, helped them get her VASH vouchers, but were unable to secure a safe, affordable place that would accept them.
Is the problem that the solutions are too expensive? That's another "no". A number of studies, including one in Florida found that it costs 68% less to house and treat homeless individuals than it does to leave them on the streets, where they end up in a cycle, passing from emergency rooms, to temporary shelters, to the criminal justice system, which costs cities many millions of dollars.
I think the problem is that we lack the political commitment and will to solve homelessness.
Los Angeles, on paper, has pledged a renewed commitment to ending homelessness. Mayor Garcetti has promised an impressive $100 million to the effort (the homeless population in LA has increased about 12% since Garcetti took office in 2013, with a 6% increase in homeless veterans), and two months after the announcement only $16 million has been placed in a trust account for the effort. In the meantime, to position the city for increased federal funding, the funding for 60 transitional housing programs has been cut. These programs were making a difference. We have taken a step backwards in order to move forward.
Part of the Los Angeles plan is about just getting through the winter. With "about 26,000 people living on LA sidewalks, in cars and storm drains. LA officials approved a campaign to open public buildings as temporary shelters and allow people to sleep inside vehicles in designated lots." The key word here is "temporary".
There are some positive signs elsewhere in the country. The State of Virginia and the city of New Orleans claim to have eliminated veteran homelessness, for example. However, we are not seeing these kinds of improvements in Los Angeles. Our homeless veteran outreach teams are seeing more veterans on the street, with encampments just forced by the city to move from place to place.
Just this month, Mayor Garcetti decided not to declare a state of emergency around homelessness in Los Angeles, "cutting off for now an avenue designed to bring swift relief to thousands of people as El Niño storms are expected to bear down on Southern California beginning in January." I think this is a mistake. We are in a state of emergency and waiting for the rains to hit won't help things.
Where are we otherwise? "Officials continue to debate longer-term solutions."
It's easy to pick on that "continue to debate longer-term solutions." We've been putting band aids on this issue for a long time. The fact that only $16 million of the $100 million pledged for the fight has been allocated so far is concerning. One step forward and two steps back. We've gained ground housing homeless veterans, but we're far from addressing the base causes of homelessness. And not just in LA.
You can be sure the stories and images from the actuality of a cold, wet winter will be heart-wrenching. Do you really want to see those images? Read about the suffering? I don't. It makes me crazy. I've been watching it for over forty years, since I first came home from Vietnam.
Los Angeles is home to the largest veteran population in the country. Our Outreach street team is gearing up for a difficult season. We do what we can. It's a band aid. Hard to feel totally good about that. If you know a veteran who needs help, here's our Lifeline for Vets: 888.777.4443