New Directions for Veterans

U.S. Air Force veteran Willie Edward, 55, right, enjoys a visit from Hillary Evans, assistant director for permanent supportive housing with New Directions for Veterans. He's seen in his new apartment at the Sepulveda VA in North Hills. (Los Angeles Times / September 26, 2013)

On the Department of Veterans Affairs' two huge campuses in Los Angeles County, there are only two buildings slated to provide permanent housing for veterans with special needs: New Directions Sepulveda I and II in North Hills, which celebrate their grand opening Friday. And it took the developer 11 years, much of it spent clearing a vast amount of red tape, to complete them. As welcome as Sepulveda I and II are, they're also a depressing reminder of how hard it is to persuade the VA to do more on its own property for homeless vets.

More than 32,000 veterans in Los Angeles County are expected to experience homelessness at least temporarily during the next 21/2 years, more than in any other metropolitan area in the U.S. Roughly 6,000 are chronically homeless vets badly in need of supportive services, such as mental health care and drug treatment. Meanwhile, the VA owns 550 acres in West Los Angeles and North Hills, where numerous aging buildings are empty or underused.

The North Hills project began in 2002 when Toni Reinis of New Directions for Veterans, which provides supportive services, approached the VA about converting some of its buildings into long-term housing. It took more than five years to persuade the agency to grant New Directions and A Community of Friends, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, a long-term "enhanced use lease" on two buildings with room for 147 homeless veterans.

The project next ran into a series of legal hurdles, including fair-housing and tax rules that didn't allow developments exclusively for veterans. After resolving those through legislation and administrative rulings, the organizers spent a year and a half lining up the required $48 million in construction funds.

The legal changes won by the developers should help ease the way for similar projects, but the VA has granted only 37 leases nationwide for long-term supportive housing on its property. On the West L.A. campus, where the VA has leased out property right and left to businesses and civic groups, the agency has agreed to let only three of its many buildings be used for therapeutic housing with no time limits, serving some 200 veterans in total. One of those is under construction; two aren't even close.

To its credit, the VA has stepped up its efforts to help place homeless vets in permanent supportive housing in private facilities around the county. While that's a crucial part of the solution, the VA must create more housing on its own property, where many of the services these veterans need are being provided. There are just too many homeless veterans in the county to serve, and they can't afford to wait 11 years for help.