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4,000 veterans live unhoused in LA County. 'City of Tents' explores Veterans Row

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Nearly 4,000 veterans live unhoused in Los Angeles County. It is the largest concentration of unsheltered veterans in the country. Early on in the pandemic, dozens of them set up camp on a sidewalk in the wealthy neighborhood of Brentwood, a long row of family-sized tents, many bearing an American flag. The people who lived there nicknamed the encampment Veterans Row - people like John Raposa, Ryan Higgins, John O'Neil, Gabriel Phillips and Scott Marek.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CITY OF TENTS: VETERANS ROW")

JOHN RAPOSA: I was EOD - explosive ordnance disposal. I specialized in WMDs.

RYAN HIGGINS: My MOS is 84-04. I'm a combat medic, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. Joined the Navy, became a corpsman, and I was a combat medic.

JOHN O'NEIL: I was in the Air Force. I did two years.

GABRIEL PHILLIPS: I am a veteran of the United States Army - twice war veteran.

SCOTT MAREK: Army, yes. I was trying to be everything that I could be.

CHANG: They started camping on this particular block because of what's right next to it - a nearly 400-acre, gated medical campus run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Raposa, a Navy veteran, camped at Veterans Row for more than a year.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CITY OF TENTS: VETERANS ROW")

RAPOSA: People don't understand. The Veterans Administration is a spikes-out organization. It's not a castle with a open gate. It's a castle with a gate closed and a moat and crocodiles in the moat, and they're hungry, OK? And they, you know, raise the drawbridge up, you know? And they're up there with arrows, OK? That's what it is.

CHANG: For nearly two years, reporter Anna Scott of member station KCRW has been reporting on the residents of Veterans Row, the camp's rise and fall and what it all says about how to end homelessness among veterans and nonveterans alike. Her new podcast is called "City Of Tents: Veterans Row." Hey, Anna.

ANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. So can you just first tell us more about how this camp, Veterans Row, came to be in the first place?

SCOTT: Yes. This was a very eye-catching camp even in a city of tents. And it's not unusual to see some number of unhoused veterans around that VA campus going back years. But this particular camp dates back to about three years ago - so early pandemic. And it was built after the VA created a kind of unintentional precursor to Veterans Row when they started a government-run tent city on their property right next to this block. So this was supposed to be just an emergency shelter for unhoused veterans early in the pandemic.

And I actually reported on that at the time and met a Navy veteran there who became a character in this podcast. He later ended up on Veterans Row - Jeffrey Powers. At the time, he told me that the VA campground was OK as an emergency shelter, but it wasn't a long-term solution.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "CITY OF TENTS: VETERANS ROW")

JEFFREY POWERS: I find this frequently - when in situations where it's government help, is that their mindset is not that of somebody from the perspective of the hospitality industry but rather from the penal system. And it's really annoying because I'm not a criminal. I'm just homeless.

SCOTT: So he was there. He was in a small tent that he had to crawl in and out of. It was uncomfortable because he had a knee injury. And what happened was a Vietnam veteran who lives in the Brentwood area was walking by. He saw veterans like Jeffrey crawling into these little tents, and he went to the VA and tried to donate a big walk-in tent. But the VA said no. So that resident went out to the street outside the VA and gave it to a homeless veteran who was camping there. And that's how Veterans Row started, and it grew from there.

CHANG: Right. And in this podcast, you also detail the long history of the campus. Like, can you just explain why this land was originally set aside for veterans and what's on it today?

SCOTT: Yeah. This very large campus in West Los Angeles exists there because that land was donated more than a century ago by a wealthy widow to the federal government specifically to be a home for veterans. At the time, this country had a whole system of what were called soldiers' homes. The campus today reflects what the VA mostly does now - health care, cemeteries, benefits. So there's a large hospital there and medical offices, along with some things that are unrelated to veterans. The VA rents some space to UCLA for a baseball field, for example. Outside leases like that have been controversial and even led to a lawsuit some years ago. As a result of that case, the VA agreed almost a decade ago to house veterans on that campus again as the land was intended for. But they are way behind on that plan. And in the podcast, we unpack why.

CHANG: Well, I understand that Veterans Row was disbanded in 2021. So where are all the veterans who used to live there living now?

SCOTT: A number of them are in temporary shelters on that VA campus. Some have moved into permanent housing or plan to very soon. The VA just opened another building on that campus. So there's now a total of 113 apartments for low-income veterans there. But in a county with nearly 4,000 unhoused veterans, it's clearly a fraction...

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...Of the need. For the veterans who do get to live there, though, it's amazing. They're on this park-like campus in West Los Angeles. They can walk to their doctor's appointments. They have a real community there. It really makes you see the promise of this campus and what it could be if the VA was following through more quickly on all of the housing it promised there.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, how much housing does the VA eventually plan to build there? I mean, how long would it take, too?

SCOTT: Well, seven years ago, they came up with a plan to build 1,200 units on the campus. That was the promise. They were supposed to have more than half of those done by now. But as we were just discussing, they've fallen way short of that goal...

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: ...Which is partly because of the nature of the campus. It's old. They had to do time-consuming environmental studies. There are infrastructure challenges. But my reporting over the last couple of years found that that glacial pace also has a lot to do with money. The VA, it turns out, did not budget one penny for this plan that they agreed to for a long time. Frankly, it just hasn't been a priority, and that actually says a lot about why it's so difficult to solve homelessness in general in this country.

CHANG: Absolutely. Well, I am wondering, Anna, because you cover homelessness in Southern California beyond veterans and - when you were reporting for this podcast focusing on Veterans Row, I'm curious, did you come across any solutions that could be applied more broadly, like, to help all unsheltered people find housing?

SCOTT: Yes, that's one of the interesting things about this story. So when you zoom out, this country has actually done a very good job dramatically reducing veteran homelessness specifically since 2010. A lot of cities around the country have ended veteran homelessness altogether. It's not because veterans are easier to house. It's because they got more help.

So in the podcast, we look at exactly what that help was - things like low-income rental vouchers paired with health care and other services, aggressive street outreach to connect people to those resources. And we look at how that could in theory be given to nonveterans too. But we also get into what the roadblocks still are in places like LA County, where we have not only thousands of unhoused veterans, but nearly 70,000 unhoused people total.

CHANG: So many people. I mean, how feasible are those solutions you mentioned specifically for unhoused people who are not veterans, who may not attract the same political and institutional support as veterans can?

SCOTT: That is exactly why I make a promise in the very first episode that in the series you'll hear how we could end homelessness in this country, but also why it's so hard to do. We have a different social contract with veterans.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: We could provide some of the same assistance to nonveterans, but we don't all agree that every unhoused person deserves the same help.

CHANG: Reporter Anna Scott of KCRW. Her new podcast is called "City Of Tents: Veterans Row." Thank you so much, Anna, for your reporting and for this conversation.

SCOTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Scott

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