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Nation & World

Los Angeles VA Opens Shelter For Homeless Veterans On Its Campus

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

So many people in Los Angeles live on the streets that some city leaders are considering government-run homeless encampments, a controversial idea that's already being tested at the Veterans Affairs campus in West Los Angeles, as Anna Scott of member station KCRW reports.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: On the edge of a big green lawn, Brian Barrios sits on a folding chair under a tree. He's talking about his former career as a soldier.

BRIAN BARRIOS: I did nine years in the U.S. Army. And I did 28 months in combat, two different tours - Operation Iraqi Freedom, a total of 28 months.

SCOTT: We're speaking on the grounds of a nearly 400-acre campus owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It has a hospital and other services for people who have served in the military. On the grass a few yards away, about 50 camping tents are lined up in rows. In June, Barrios moved into one of those tents.

BARRIOS: The whole thing about me is I don't like being locked down.

SCOTT: For years, there's been a plan to redevelop this property into a sanctuary for homeless veterans with thousands of new affordable apartments. That hasn't happened yet. But the VA opened this campground after the pandemic hit in April to give unhoused veterans a quick place to go with meals, medical care and space to socially distance. Barrios likes the freedom of movement it offers.

BARRIOS: I'm so grateful because I can get up at any given moment. I can go to the store and buy my coffee. They have programs for different people, and this one perfectly fits me.

SCOTT: You don't always get that kind of freedom at traditional homeless shelters. And for some who have been unhoused a long time...

ANJANI REDDY: There's also, you know, this independence of living on the street that they may not be ready to leave.

SCOTT: Dr. Anjani Reddy is deputy chief of clinical operations for the West LA VA's homeless programs. She says the campsite has a lower barrier to entry than many other options but is still designed to usher people into permanent housing.

REDDY: Many of them will come. They'll stay a while, and then we connect them with the services to get them engaged in permanent housing plans and health care.

SCOTT: Since it opened, more than 270 veterans have lived at the VA campsite. Nearly 30 have returned to the streets, but more than a hundred have graduated to transitional or permanent housing. Others have moved in with family, entered medical facilities or left the state without letting the VA know where they went. Now at least two LA City Council members want to test similar programs for nonveterans. But Tommy Newman, who oversees public policy advocacy for the United Way of Greater LA, argues that...

TOMMY NEWMAN: Safe camping or safe sleeping, however you describe it, needs to be an option of last resort.

SCOTT: He says the VA has unique advantages in running this type of program, like their own land and a dedicated health care system. For a city without those things...

NEWMAN: We know that there are better and faster and just as cost-effective solutions that bring people indoors as opposed to leaving them outside.

SCOTT: There are also more housing resources for homeless military veterans than nonveterans, so people at the VA camp like Brian Barrios are less likely to languish.

BARRIOS: Thanks to God I've been sober for 31 days. I'm living in the now and just taking it a day at a time.

SCOTT: After three months in a tent, he moved inside to a shelter on the VA campus. Barrios also recently got a federal rental voucher, and he's been matched to an apartment in North Hollywood. He's waiting to move in.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Scott in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.