How close is LA to ending veteran homelessness?
Tuesday was a day of parades and remembrances for veterans. Today it's back to work for hundreds of counselors tasked with ending veteran homelessness in the United States. They have just over a year to make good on a promise by the current administration to get every last vet off Los Angeles' streets and into long-term housing.
With the numbers of homeless veterans in decline, there's good reason to believe the city will make its goal and, in doing so, give new hope to efforts to end homelessness in the city.
Reaching out and into the streets
Deep in L.A.'s Skid Row, on San Julian Street, Mark Meeker and Gilbert Jimenez wander the street offering assistance and first aid to anyone who needs it.
The two are part of the colossal clean-up and outreach efforts that have brought together city and county resources on a bimonthly basis to work in tight teams.
But today, they're looking for two homeless veterans they met through local police. They were told to meet them just outside the Midnight Mission, where they hang out, but they're not having much luck.
"George said he slept out right here. But he's not here. I don't see him," Gilbert says.
Gilbert is with the L.A. Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), where he works as a coordinator and substance abuse counselor. Mark works for the county's Department of Mental Health as part of their VALOR (Veterans And Loved Ones Recovery) program.
In the past, it was often that two service providers would be scouring the streets for potential clients. In fact, it wasn't often that the two agencies would work closely together at all, Gilbert says.
But a new push to coordinate efforts on Skid Row, along with the nationwide push to end homelessness, has put the resources in place. It hasn't been cheap. The city will spend $3.7 million this year for its effort to clean and do outreach in Skid Row alone. The Veterans Administration puts the cost of its national efforts to end veteran homelessness at around $6.8 billion in 2014.
As they pass along San Julian, Gilbert and Mark say "hi" to those leaning against its walls and sitting on its curb. Do they need medical attention? Extra socks? Most smile amiably and shake their heads. Some wave them over to chat.
"Outreach is a process. It's like planting a seed," Gilbert says. "It's a process of building consistency and a rapport with the individual. And going from there."
It can be grueling work, but no one may be better suited to understand its payoff than Gilbert's colleague, Mark.
Mark isn’t just an outreach worker. He’s a success story. Five years ago, he too was homeless, a veteran living on the streets in Orange County.
"You can have all the degrees you want, but I too used to eat of trash cans," he says. "I know what it's like to go months and weeks without a shower. And being hopeless like that, wanting help, but unable to make it to the place that helps you."
He says he understands from personal experience how effective the kind of outreach he's doing can be to someone too proud, or too ashamed, to seek help themselves.
"When they first came to me in the streets where I was homeless, a light bulb went on," Mark says. "I thought, 'Wow, how cool. You guys come out to us? Cause we can never make it to you.' So that's what we do. We bring the help to the streets where the homeless are."
And it seems to be working.
Reason for optimism
(Caption: Christine Marge is the director of United Way's Home For Good in Los Angeles. Eric Zassenhaus/ KPCC)
When the White House vowed in 2009 to house every homeless veteran by December 2015, the move was greeted with skepticism in many places. In Los Angeles, home to the nation's largest homeless veteran population and to more people sleeping on its streets on any given night than any other city, it seemed wishful thinking.
Veteran homelessness in L.A. dropped 23 percent, from 8,131 vets in 2011 to 6,248 in 2013, the last time an official count was done. Over 60 percent of homeless women veterans were housed in that time.
By contrast, the number of chronically homeless individuals living on L.A.'s streets jumped — up about 25 percent in the same time.
So what's working in the effort to address veteran homelessness that isn't making much of a dent in homelessness in general?
Christine Marge is director of United Way’s Home For Good initiative, which helps coordinate some of the efforts and does research on their impact. She says she sees the pieces coming together in the push to end veteran homelessness.
"We have a passionate community that's really committed to that goal. We have resources to put towards that end. We have an engaged community who wants to do their part," she says. "I think, fundamentally, we're seeing a widespread belief that it's possible to end homelessness."
Marge estimates that there are still about 4,600 veterans without shelter in L.A. County (the official number won't be known until a count in January 2015). There's still a long way to go before L.A. can declare victory.
Still, several other cities that once had substantial populations of homeless veterans have been making faster gains. Phoenix and Salt Lake City are on track to reach their goal before the deadline. In L.A., she says, it will be a sprint to the finish.
"But I would say it's not unthinkable for Los Angeles to reach the goal by December 2015, and that in itself is remarkable," she says.
If we're able to pull it off, it will not only be an incredible feat, but it will have provided a blueprint to address the larger homeless problem and boost to the morale of the city's service providers, Marge says.
"This will have not only transformed the lives of veterans whose lives will be back on track and who will be living in homes of their own," she says, "but it will also have built the collective confidence of this community that this is not our inevitable fate — that we will be the homeless capital of the nation for the rest of our lives and for generations to come. It will build our confidence that we can solve this."
Marge says some of that effort will depend on filling in some of the gaps in the coverage provided by vouchers and other programs that homeless veterans receive — such as move in costs and the ability to furnish an apartment. It will also depend on landlords and neighbors being willing to take a chance on renting a room to someone who's last address may have been on the streets.
(Caption: Homeless veteran outreach worker Mark Meeker brings George Phillippi to a facility to that offers social services to homeless veterans in downtown Los Angeles. Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC)
Back on Skid Row, Mark and Gilbert get some good news in the form of a phone call from the local beat cop.
"Officer Joseph has George and they're on 6th and San Pedro," Mark says.
"OK. Let's go," Gilbert replies. The two begin fast-walking to the intersection, a couple blocks away.
When they arrive, George wears a torn parka with no shirt. He has a long grey beard and shy smile. They exchange hellos, and then get right to business, producing clipboards and questions.
His full name is George Michael Phillippi. He's 64, a veteran of the Vietnam War, where he served as a marine from 1968 to 1970. After his service, he returned to L.A. where he'd lived since 1957. Then he got bored. He moved to Salt Lake City in March 1990, then to Las Vegas.
Six months ago, he says, he came back to L.A.
"I have a daughter here, and two grandkids left. I'm just trying to locate them. I don't know where they're at and they're not in the phone book," he says. "I want to get her to possibly move to Vegas with me. I've worked at Caesars Palace twice and I'm sure I can go back."
George says he started drinking and soon found himself on Skid Row. His shirt was stolen, like many of his other belongings. Now, he says, he's ready to get off the streets.
"I'm just trying to get my own self together, get a haircut and shave and present myself," he says.
Mark's beaming. Today has been a success, but there's still a long way to go tomorrow.