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Veteran homelessness in LA has dropped by 18 percent

This guy is out at the southbound 1-25/Colorado Blvd. exit, <i>all the time</i> when the weather is warm. I definitely wouldn't want to be out there all day.
Photo by ChrisCosta77 via Flickr Creative Commons
Veteran homelessness is down 18 percent in latest official figures.

The latest homelessness figures are out from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority – and for veterans, there's some good news. There are now 18 percent fewer homeless vets – 3,910, down from 4,800 in 2017.

It’s a relief after the big spike in homeless veterans last year  – when the number jumped 57 percent – that served as a wakeup call for elected officials and advocates in Los Angeles County.

But L.A. is still home to by far the largest population of homeless veterans in the nation, and local leaders remain cautiously optimistic about this year's improvement.

So what’s behind the the decrease?

The county and local nonprofits who help the homeless say we may already be seeing the fruits of recent funding hikes for homeless services – namely, Measure H, which was green-lit by L.A. County voters in March. That quarter-cent hike in the sales tax was projected to raise about $350 million annually.

In order to jump-start services and allow providers to ramp up hiring, the county began funding Measure H programs in July 2017 – months before the tax kicked in in October. 

"Everyone talks about what a shame it is to have those that have chosen to serve this country to be now on the streets, said L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn. "And while we're still in the early stages of implementing Measure H, these numbers show that our strategies are the right ones and we are beginning to make progress."

The United Way of Greater Los Angeles said earlier this year that funding allowed it to quadruple the number of homeless outreach teams on the street, add 600 shelter beds and provide subsidies to keep 1,000 people housed.

In its latest report, the county also cites the Los Angeles VA's new focus on outreach to chronically homeless veterans suffering from mental illness, disability or substance abuse, a population that saw a 20 percent increase in last year's count. 

"We knew our priorities needed to shift to address that in a more targeted way," said Heidi Marston, Director of Community Engagement and Reintegration for the Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System. "We had to get out there, on the streets and under the bridges to find the folks who are never going to come to our programs unless we build that relationship where they are first."

Marston said that meant adding more VA outreach teams and collaborating with LAPD, the county and other community efforts.

L.A. County also launched a new Veteran Benefit Advocacy Program, aimed at making sure veterans are getting their full VA pension and other benefits and services.

Officials say Measure H has also increased coordination between nonprofits, helping them work together in a more meaningful way and avoid duplicating outreach efforts.                                             

How does it compare to national efforts to end veteran homelessness?

Mayor Garcetti once had the goal of housing every homeless veteran in Los Angeles. In 2014, the mayor joined the Obama administration’s national push to end veteran homelessness, committing to sheltering every veteran in the city by 2016. Local officials all over the country joined the effort, and many communities reported successes.

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the VA announced a 47 percent nationwide decline in the number of homeless vets since 2010. States with smaller homeless veteran populations – like Virginia, Connecticut, and Delaware – claim to have effectively ended homelessness among the group.

Garcetti was eventually forced to walk back his pledge, blaming a surge in newly-homeless veterans. The population of homeless veterans in the U.S. ticked up slightly last year, in large part driven by increases in Southern California. 

What other measures are in the pipeline?

  On Tuesday, Los Angeles County Supervisors approved $20 million from the county’s Department of Mental Health for veteran housing and services. 

Of those funds, $5 million will go to form a peer network to help struggling veterans by providing “battle buddies” trained to navigate them to the programs that will help keep them off the streets, communicate with landlords, and find substance abuse or mental health counseling.

The remaining $15 million will be used to build new affordable housing for veterans experiencing mental illness. The motion was introduced by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Kathryn Barger, and funding is slated to be in the FY 2018-19 budget and will be released to nonprofit developers by the fall of this year.

Another influx of cash aimed at making a dent in the homelessness crisis comes from Measure HHH, approved by Los Angeles city voters in November 2016. It secured $1.2 billion in bond funding to build and renovate low-income housing.

The first project using HHH funds broke ground in East Hollywood last December. The complex includes a veteran services program and is expected to open in the spring of 2019. Veterans will also see city funding on the campus of the West Los Angeles VA, where HHH dollars were recently approved to help renovate 110 units of permanent supportive housing for veterans slated to open in early 2020.

This story will be updated.